New Report: Driven by Dollars

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NATIONAL/VIRGINIA CONTACT:
Angela Ciolfi
Director of Litigation & Advocacy, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1810 | angela@justice4all.org

FOR OTHER STATE CONTACTS SEE BELOW

New Report: Most States Strip Driver’s Licenses for Unpaid Court Debt

 Few states require an examination of a person’s ability to pay,putting millions of low-income Americans at risk of being punished for their poverty

Charlottesville, Va., September 26, 2017—Nearly every state and the District of Columbia have laws permitting, and in many states requiring, the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court costs and fines, according to a report released today from the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The report, “Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt,” finds that:

  • License-for-payment systems are ubiquitous despite widespread consensus that they are counter-productive and harmful.  Forty-three states (and D.C.) suspend driver’s licenses because of unpaid court debt.
  • Most states suspend licenses without any safeguards in place to make sure people are not punished just for being poor. Only 4 states require an ability-to-pay, or “willfulness,” determination before a license can be suspended for nonpayment.
  • 14 states use license suspension, not just for traffic court debt, but also to punish non-payment of criminal justice debt even when the crime bears no relation to motor vehicles.
  • Virtually all states that suspend for unpaid court debt do so indefinitely.  It is not uncommon for people to lose their licenses for many years.

Although nationwide data are unavailable, we know that the individuals whose licenses are currently suspended or revoked for failure to pay court debt number in the millions.  Indeed, just 5 states (Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee) account for over 4.2 million people.

“Driver’s license suspension sets up a vicious cycle. Those who can pay, do. Those who can’t pay, lose their licenses and consequently suffer a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families.” said Angela Ciolfi, Director of Litigation & Advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “This report confirms what we have been hearing for years. That this is not just a Ferguson problem or a Virginia problem.  This is a national problem that affects millions of people in nearly every state.”

These laws have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as questions surface about their constitutionality and effectiveness. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has stated that driver’s license suspension should not be used for punishing social non-conformance, but should instead be limited to taking dangerous drivers off the road.  Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice has written that such suspensions “raise significant public policy concerns” and that governmental authorities should “avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety.”

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed Stinnie v. Holcomb, a class action challenging Virginia’s automatic suspension statute, and similar challenges have been filed in 4 other states:  California, Tennessee, Michigan, and Montana. The lawsuits contend that automatic license suspension violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses by punishing people for their poverty.

The podcast, Independent Study, recently did an in-depth profile of the Stinnie v. Holcomb lawsuit.  You can download the podcast—complete with interviews of lead Plaintiff Damian Stinnie and Charlottesville/Albemarle jail superintendent Martin Kumer—on SoundCloud (https://soundcloud.com/wtju/debtors-prison) or on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/independent-study/id1203225942). 

To read more about the lawsuit, go to http://www.justice4all.org/drive.

For a PDF of the report click here.

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

PLEASE CONTACT THE FOLLOWING WITH STATE-SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

 

State Organization Press contact
Alabama  Southern Poverty Law
Center
Ashley Levett
Ashley.levett@splcenter.org
Arkansas

 

Equal Justice Under Law

 

Stephanie Storey
818-694-6450
stephanie@equaljusticeunderlaw.org
California Bay Area Legal Aid

 

ACLU of Northern California

Rubicon Programs

Rebekah Evenson
(510) 250-5226
REvenson@baylegal.orgMicaela Davis
mdavis@aclunc.orgJonathan Bash
jonathanb@rubiconprograms.org
Colorado American Civil Liberties Union — Colorado Denise Maes
720-402-3121 or 720-273-7543
dmaes@aclu-co.org
  
District of Columbia Tzedek DC Sarah Hollender
(202) 274-5756
sh@tzedekdc.org 
Florida American Civil Liberties Union — Florida Benjamin Stevenson
bstevenson@aclufl.org
  
Idaho Idaho Legal Aid Services Howard Belodoff
howardbelodoff@idaholegalaid.org
  
Illinois Chicago Appleseed Aditi Singh
aditisingh@chicagoappleseed.org
  
Indiana Indiana Legal Services, Inc. Adam Mueller
317-829-3174
adam.mueller@ilsi.net
  
Iowa Iowa Legal Aid Alex Kornya
515-243-1193
akornya@iowalaw.org
  
Kansas Kansas Appleseed Benet Magnuson bmagnuson@kansasappleseed.org
  
Louisiana Southern Poverty Law Center Ashley Levett
Ashley.levett@splcenter.org
  
Maryland Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service Amy P. Hennen
ahennen@mvlslaw.org
  
Michigan Equal Justice Under Law Stephanie Storey
818-694-6450
stephanie@equaljusticeunderlaw.org
  
Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center Ashley Levett
Ashley.levett@splcenter.org
  
Montana Equal Justice Under Law Stephanie Storey
818-694-6450
stephanie@equaljusticeunderlaw.org
  
New Hampshire New Hampshire Legal Assistance Cheryl Steinberg
csteinberg@nhla.org
  
New Jersey New Jersey Institute for Social Justice Scott Novakowski
973-624-9400 x30Andrea McChristian
973-624-9400 x35
  
North Carolina North Carolina Justice Center Daniel Bowes
danielb@ncjustice.org
  
Ohio American Civil Liberties Union — Ohio Mike Brickner
mbrickner@acluohio.orgElizabeth Bonham
ebonham@acluohio.org
   
Pennsylvania Equal Justice Under Law Stephanie Storey
818-694-6450
stephanie@equaljusticeunderlaw.org
  
Rhode Island Rhode Island Center for Justice John Willumsen-Friedman
jwillumsen@centerforjustice.org
  
Tennessee Just City

  
National Center for Law & Economic Justice
  

Civil Rights Corps
  
Baker Donelson

Just City: Josh Spickler, 901-216-2024, josh@justcity.org

NCLEJ: Claudia Wilner, 212-633-6967, wilner@nclej.org

Civil Rights Corps: Premal Dharia, 202-780-7594, premal@civilrightscorps.org

Baker Donelson: Matt White, 901-577-8182, mwhite@bakerdonelson.com

Texas Texas Appleseed Mary Schmid Mergler
mmergler@texasappleseed.net
  
Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center Angela Ciolfi
434-529-1810
angela@justice4all.org
  
Washington Equal Justice Under Law Stephanie Storey
818-694-6450
stephanie@equaljusticeunderlaw.org