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Challenging Unconstitutional Driver’s License Suspensions

March 19, 2018

Harmann Singh

Harmann Singh is a Truman Scholar and JD Candidate at Harvard Law School. 


In October 2016, Kitia Harris, a 25-year-old single mother who is unemployed and receives disability benefits because of a medical condition, was issued a $150 ticket for “impeding traffic” in Michigan. She was unable to pay the fine, and consequently the state suspended her driver’s license. To reinstate her license, she would have to pay $150 for the ticket, $81 in penalties for nonpayment, and a $45 license clearance fee. Because of this suspension and her inability to pay, Ms. Harris was unable to travel and often was forced to cancel or reschedule her bi-weekly medical appointments.[1]

Over the past year, there has been a flurry of litigation, legislative and policy change, and community organizing around the issue Ms. Harris faced: the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of court fines and fees by indigent defendants. As this movement continues to reach important milestones, it is helpful to reflect on how and why it rapidly gained traction and success.

Millions of people across the nation have suffered the suspension or revocation of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of court fines and fees.[2] Forty-three states suspend driver’s licenses and three others prevent renewals for unpaid court debt. Only four states (California, Kentucky, Georgia, and Wyoming) do not use driver’s license suspensions to enforce unpaid court debt.[3] Of the states that use licenses suspensions, forty states allow suspensions without a determination of ability to pay. Moreover, in most states, suspensions are indefinite, there is a fee to reinstate licenses, and there are no occupational or other restricted-use licenses available.[4]

Unsurprisingly, licenses revoked for the nonpayment of court debt disproportionately impact low-income individuals and can have serious consequences. “Numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between car ownership, job security, and higher earnings,” particularly given the increasing geographic separation between lower-income workers and employment.[5] Such suspensions—when debt is unpaid because of inability rather than voluntary non-payment—are also unsuccessful as deterrents or motivation to comply with a court order. In fact, almost 75% of drivers whose licenses are revoked for unpaid court debt continue to drive with revoked or suspended licenses.[6]

Suspensions not only adversely impact low-income individuals, but also burden local economies, government resources, and public safety. Employers have to hire and train new workers every time an employee is fired because he or she is unable to drive to work. Similarly, the state expends valuable resources on citing, arresting, and processing individuals; operating motor vehicle agencies; moving traffic cases through the court system; and paying unemployment insurance. Naturally, this strains government resources and detracts from other important public safety functions of law enforcement and government.[7]

Change around this issue has come at the intersection of legislative and policy advocacy, litigation, and community organizing. A myriad of legislative solutions have been proposed, including eliminating reinstatement fees, equitable payment plans, and hearings to determine ability to pay.[8] Of course, the most impactful and fundamental proposal is to eliminate the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid court debt altogether. Within the past year, such proposals have found traction in states.

For example, California passed AB 103, which bans suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court debts.[9] Less remarkably, but nonetheless importantly, Colorado eliminated the possibility of jail time for driving on licenses suspended solely because of unpaid court debt,[10] and Virginia now requires courts to “take into account a defendant’s financial circumstances … in setting the terms of a payment agreement.”[11]

Beyond legislation, policy change has also gained traction, with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety agreeing to stop automatically suspending licenses for unpaid court debt, waive the $100 reinstatement fee, and require a consideration of indigency before suspending licenses.[12]

Litigation has also been a powerful tool in challenging this problem, with litigants arguing that suspensions are unconstitutional because they (1) violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by treating those who are willing but unable to pay more harshly than those who are willing and able to pay; and (2) violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution by suspending a license without notice and opportunity for hearing. Judges in Michigan[13] and Nashville[14] have accepted similar arguments, with additional cases pending in Montana[15] and Virginia[16]. Interestingly, the Department of Justice (under the Obama Administration) filed a Statement of Interest in the Virginia litigation contending that drivers have a fundamental “due process right to establish inability to pay” before their licenses are suspended.[17]

While a number of factors contribute to this rapid change in policy and law—including the widespread impact of the issue, astute lawyering and advocacy, and community organizing around issues of over policing in communities of color—certain features of the movement made it particularly opportune for the recent flurry of change.

First, reports and investigations—particularly those from the government or reputable advocacy organizations—brought the issue to the fore of the nation’s consciousness, proposed concrete solutions, and provided useful statistics to quantify the problem. For example, the issue first gained widespread attention after the Department of Justice’s 2015 report on predatory practices in municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, which had an entire section dedicated to driver’s license suspensions and the hardship they impose on indigent citizens.[18] Similarly, reports and studies were important in driving change in California.[19]

Second, as with other criminal justice issues, advocates harnessed and embraced bipartisan support for the issue. For example, advocates broadly framed the issue and provided evidence to support the conclusion that this practice was harmful for a number of interests: it wastes government resources; negatively affects racial minorities; cuts against effective law enforcement practices; hurts the public safety; and is bad for the economy and jobs. Thus, whether it was then-Governor Mike Pence signing legislation creating a specialized driving privilege program in Indiana or Governor Jerry Brown signing the landmark California legislation discussed above, advocates harnessed and embraced bipartisan support for reform.

Third, change was sought at each level of government—wherever it was feasible and most effective. Federal lawsuits were brought to challenge the constitutionality of suspension programs; state legislation and litigation pervaded the country; and municipalities drove change toward broader reform. For example, the city of Muskegon, Michigan ceased further suspensions of drivers caught with a suspended license, and the county soon followed the city’s lead. Similarly, Seattle created a relicensing program which offers different ways to pay tickets (e.g. community service) and allows individuals to reinstate their licenses while still making payments.[20] 

While none of these factors are particularly profound or unique to this movement, and while problems remain, the movement is on the cusp of substantial change and has relatively expeditiously gained traction and success in legal and policy change for some of the reasons discussed above.

[1] Fowler v. Johnson, No. 17-CV-11441, 2017 WL 6540926 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 21, 2017).

[2] Although nationwide data is not available, recent reports indicate 1.8 million people in Texas, 1.2 million in North Carolina, and 977,000 in Virginia alone have had their licenses revoked or suspended for the nonpayment of court fines and fees. See Mario Salas & Angela Ciolfi, Driven By Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt, Legal Aid Justice Center (2017).

[3] See Salas & Ciolfi, supra note 2.

[4] Id.

[5] Ryan T. Schwier & Autumn James, Roadblock to Economic Independence: How Driver’s License Suspension Policies in Indiana Impede Self-Sufficiency, Burden Government & Tax Public Resources, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law (2016).

[6] Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers, American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (2013).

[7] Id.

[8] See Schwier & James, supra note 7.

[9] 2017 California Assembly Bill No. 103, California 2017-2018 Regular Session (“This bill would instead limit the program to initiating a driver’s licenses suspension or hold actions only for a failure to appear in court.”).

[10] 2017 Colorado House Bill No. 1162, Colorado First Regular Session of the Seventy-First General Assembly.

[11] 2016 Virginia House Bill No. 2386, Virginia 2017 Regular Session.

[12] SPLC Reaches Agreement with Mississippi to Reinstate Over 100,000 Driver’s Licenses Suspended for Non-payment of Fines, Southern Poverty Law Center, Dec. 17, 2017.

[13] Fowler, 2017 WL 6540926.

[14] Robinson v. Purkey, No. 3:17-CV-1263, 2017 WL 4418134 (M.D. Tenn. Oct. 5, 2017).

[15] Complaint, DiFrancesco v. Bullock, No. 2:17-CV-00066 (D. Mont. Aug. 31, 2017).

[16] Stinnie v. Holcomb, No. 17-CV-1740 (C.A.4).

[17] Statement of Interest of the United States, Stinnie v. Holcomb, 3:16-CV-00044, 2016 WL 6892275 (W.D.Va. 2016).

[18] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (2015).

[19] With a coalition of advocacy groups publishing “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California” on the heels of the Ferguson Report, and additional reports and pieces every year (in 2015, 2016, and 2017) until the practice of suspension for unpaid court debt was terminated.

[20] Relicensing Program, King County District Court,