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When the Police Come for Your Driver’s License

How would your life change if you permanently lost your driver’s license? How would you get to work? To the store or the doctor? To see your family? For many people, this is not a hypothetical question.

To make it worse, we now know that millions of Americans did not lose their licenses because they drove recklessly or while intoxicated. Instead, they ran afoul in traffic courts of surprisingly draconian rules that many states now have in place.

Take the case of a Durham, North Carolina resident, who said he was only going about three miles an hour above the speed limit when he was pulled over. For that relatively minor offense, he was fined a couple hundred dollars—money he did not have. “I just couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I have four kids.” For non-payment of the fine, he lost his driver’s license—an automatic penalty in North Carolina, as in most states. That, in turn, negatively impacted both his housing and his job. If he didn’t have the money to pay a ticket, then he certainly doesn’t now.

That man is far from alone. In fact, he is one of 1.2 million North Carolinians who have had their licenses suspended for non-driving-related reasons, according to court records. That’s a whopping one in seven adult drivers in the state. In a new report we released last month, co-author Will Crozier and I examined the cases and found patterns in driver’s license suspensions that should concern all of us, and not just in North Carolina.

Until recently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had laws in place that permitted driver’s licenses to be suspended or withdrawn for non-driving-related reasons. While data has not been made public in most states, there is evidence that many other states have numbers similar to what we found in North Carolina. In Virginia, it is nearly one million people, one in six drivers. In Texas, it is 1.4 million people. In Florida, it is over two million people.

The harm from license suspensions is deeply felt. As the Supreme Court has observed, a person has a substantial interest in maintaining his or her driver’s license because it is “essential in the pursuit of a livelihood” and suspension by the state can result in “inconvenience and economic hardship suffered.” In most communities (particularly outside urban areas), people cannot easily fulfill the myriad obligations of everyday life—such as going to work, school, medical appointments, daycare, and even the grocery store—without driving. Employers may require employees to have valid driver’s licenses. The effects go beyond the personal and are felt in the broader economy as well.

These suspensions are incredibly counterproductive, as they can lead to a downward spiral of debt and poverty. At Duke Law, we recently heard two people describe how they’d experienced suspensions for almost a decade because they could not pay the mounting fees—not just for their initial tickets, but for new fines imposed for driving with suspended licenses. Further, the DMV in North Carolina, as in many other states, charges a hefty fee to have one’s license reinstated.

Furthermore, the penalties and consequences are seriously disproportionate, considering that these traffic offenses are among the most trivial on the books. Indeed, in North Carolina, a serious offense, like driving while intoxicated, can result in a one-year temporary driver’s license suspension. But a failure to pay a traffic ticket: that suspension is indefinite—it doesn’t end until the person pays. That’s not the way to fairly recover traffic fines.  

Our research found troubling but unsurprising correlations between poverty level, race, and driver’s license suspensions across the state. Suspensions are disproportionately imposed on minority residents. Of the total driving age population in North Carolina, 65 percent are white, 21 percent are black, and 8 percent are Latino. But of those who have had their driver’s licenses suspended over non-payment of fines and fees, we found that 47 percent are black, 37 percent are white, and 11 percent are Latino. We also found that there are more suspensions in counties with more people in poverty.

Moreover, many have no idea that their licenses have been suspended, because their notices are sent to outdated addresses. They find out when police stop them for further traffic violations. Then things become far more severe. Bigger fines and jail time can result if a person is charged with driving with a revoked license (DWLR). Again, we found that those harsher charges fall disproportionately on minority residents in North Carolina: 39 percent of DWLRs were given to white residents, while 54 percent were black and 7 percent were Latino.

Driver’s license suspensions also raise real constitutional problems. Constitutional challenges have been successful in some states, including in Tennessee and most recently in Virginia. After all, these suspensions can be imposed automatically, without any meaningful inquiry into whether a person is actually able to pay the fine. That violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  

Moreover, suspensions disproportionately burden the poor and minorities, as we found in our research, which implicates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They may also be excessive under the Excessive Fines Clause, which the Supreme Court just unanimously held applies to the states in its ruling in Timbs v. Indiana. A case is currently pending in North Carolina, but a federal judge just ruled to dismiss many of its claims, finding inadequate evidence of constitutional violations.

Fortunately, there is a national trend of states moving to end the punitive policy of automatic license suspensions for non-payment of court debt—either through legislative action or by court order—in response to growing awareness of the damage these rules cause.

We can end this problem. Across North Carolina and in other states, prosecutors, cities, and non-profits have been working hard to restore driver’s licenses. One model effort in my community is the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program, which aims to help the one out of five Durham residents who have had their licenses suspended. DEAR helped the resident mentioned above get his charges dismissed, his court debt forgiven, and his license restored so he can drive legally. “It means the world,” the man said.

The Durham program is a successful model, but given the hundreds of thousands of residents with suspended licenses and millions across the country saddled with draconian debt and unable to legally drive, legislative solutions are urgently needed. The public and lawmakers should change the laws to end this counterproductive and cruel debt collection practice.

Brandon Garrett is the L. Neil Williams Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, where he directs the JustScience Lab, which conducts criminal justice research. His most recent book is End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.

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