Taking Driver's Licenses From the Poor to Get Them to Pay Debt Makes Zero Sense | Opinion

In the Arkansas Delta, along the western bank of the Mississippi River, sits the town of West Memphis. There, enslaved Africans cleared timber and picked cotton, B.B. King played his first gig, and Howlin' Wolf formed his first band. In West Memphis, less than 6 percent of the population is unemployed, yet 31 percent lives in poverty.

West Memphis is where Chandra B., who requested that her last name be withheld, struggles to raise her family. A single mother of four, including twins and a son with Asperger syndrome, she has trouble finding work because a 10-year-old felony taints her criminal record. Her family survives on limited disability benefits and occasional child support payments. And like many other area residents living at or below the poverty line, Chandra struggles to balance her household bills against the outstanding fines and fees she owes to the West Memphis District Court.

In November 2017, Chandra was pulled over for speeding and received a $140 ticket. She could not afford to pay the ticket but went to her court appearance hoping to find mercy for her situation. Instead, she saw person after person threatened and punished with jail sentences when they were unable to pay their court fines.

Afraid she would be jailed if she did not pay her fine, Chandra used part of her household bill money to pay $100 toward her ticket and told the court clerk she would try to pay the remaining $40 at the end of the month. The clerk warned Chandra to "borrow it from somebody" and pay as soon as possible because she was not eligible for a payment plan. The very next month, Chandra was pulled over by the police and arrested for failure to pay the remaining $40.

Arkansas is one of 43 states that suspend or revoke driver's licenses for failure to pay court-imposed debt. Upon a court's request, a person's license can be suspended or revoked indefinitely until one of two things happens: the outstanding balance is paid fully, or the judge is satisfied—a standard that is, at best, arbitrary. Arkansas law does not require that notice be given to an individual that his or her license will be suspended, nor does it extend to residents any due process rights to establish that a suspension is unwarranted. It is no surprise, then, that many people, like Chandra, do not learn their driver's license has been suspended until they are being arrested for driving on a suspended license.

Chandra learned this lesson the hard way, in June 2018, when she was pulled over and arrested for driving on a suspended license. Although she was never notified or given the opportunity to argue her case, the court had suspended her driver's license six months earlier, when she failed to pay the remaining $40 on her traffic ticket.

Two arrests, and $895 in court fines, fees and costs. All because she did not have an additional $40 to pay the court.

Suspending driver's licenses as a method to compel compliance with non-driving related behaviors, such as payment of fines and fees, has become such a "burden on DMVs, law enforcement, the courts and society" that the American Association of Vehicle Administrators now advocates the elimination of suspensions for all non-highway safety violations. Across the country, policy-makers are starting to take notice.

In June 2017, the California legislature eliminated mandatory loss of driver's licenses for failure to pay fines and restored licenses that were suspended solely for this reason. The Pennsylvania legislature took similar action in October 2018 when it eliminated driver's license suspensions for non-driving infractions. Also last year, more than 65,000 people had their driver's licenses reinstated after the District of Columbia stopped suspensions for failure to pay some traffic fines.

Car Arkansas
A road in Mountain View, Arkansas, one of 43 states that suspend or revoke driver's licenses for failure to pay court-imposed debt. David Butow/Corbis/Getty

Litigation is also being brought to protect individuals from being punished for their poverty. In 2018, federal courts in Tennessee and Virginia prohibited motor vehicle authorities from automatically suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is currently litigating a case in White County, Arkansas, challenging the routine incarceration and automatic suspension poor people's driver's licenses for nonpayment of court-imposed fines and fees.

Mobility is vital to economic growth and well-being for American families. Driving is necessary for most people to earn a living and to fulfill familial responsibilities. Driver's license loss threatens the livelihood of people already facing financial instability. This is particularly true in rural states like Arkansas, where access to public transportation is either limited or nonexistent.

Moreover, conditioning driver's licenses on court debt repayment not only promotes inequality, it places those already at poverty's edge one step closer to devastation.

Myesha Braden is director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Leah Watson, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, is counsel for the Criminal Justice Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers' Committee has been investigating the role of criminal justice fines and fees as a driver of economic inequality and mass incarceration and has published reports addressing the enforcement of fines and fees in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.