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New Report: Driven by Dollars


Angela Ciolfi
Director of Litigation & Advocacy, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1810 |


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 ( or on iTunes ( 

To read more about the lawsuit, go to

For a PDF of the report click here.


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.



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