None of us ever want a traffic ticket, but at least many of us can afford to deal with the ticket either by fighting it or paying the fine. You might believe that if you violate a traffic law, no allegedly about it, you should pay the fine. But what if the only recourse for paying means reducing your monthly family budget for essentials like food and rent?
A California red-light camera ticket, for example, is nearly $500, and it’s nigh impossible to defend yourself in traffic court. Luckily, in California, you won’t lose your license if you can’t pay, but if you’re poor, the $500 fine would likely be challenging to pay. Motorists in other states aren’t so lucky. Today at least 11 million people across the country have suspended driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines.
Last year, the US Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause against state actions. The case before the Court, Timbs vs. Indiana, involved civil asset forfeiture, but the ruling bolsters arguments against debt-based license suspensions.
Did you know that all 50 states may suspend a driver’s license for a violation that has nothing to do with driving? Offenses might include failure to pay child support, defaulting on alimony, student loans and property taxes, underage drinking, and non-driving drug convictions. Forty-three states will suspend your license for unpaid fines and tickets. Only four states require proof from the state that the driver could pay and did not.
The cost of reinstating a suspended license can vary from $20 (Arizona and Idaho) to $1200 (Massachusetts). A 2018 Reason Foundation report noted that 95 percent of Michigan’s license suspensions were due to non-driving offenses.
A federal bipartisan bill called the Driving for Opportunity Act, US SB 4186, was introduced last week by Senators Chris Coons (DE) and Roger Wicker (MA). A diverse coalition of criminal justice, law enforcement, civil rights, and conservative advocacy groups join the NMA in supporting this bill.
If enacted, the Driving for Opportunity Act will provide grant incentives to states that do not suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew a driver’s license of a person or refuse to renew a vehicle registration for failure to pay a civil or criminal fine or fee.
NMA President Gary Biller noted in a recent press release, “Families, and society in general, are burdened, not benefitted when a driver’s license suspension threatens a person’s livelihood in support of his or her family. The financial hole to dig out of becomes that much deeper, particularly for lower-income individuals.”
For years, various state legislatures have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to change its laws with regards to driver’s license suspensions. A national law would allow uniformity and, hopefully, help many of those caught in this downward spiral to be able to get back on solid ground.