Molly Davis: Stop suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay fines and fees

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) By October 2020 all driver licenses in the United States must have a gold star by order of the Department of Homeland Security. The gold star shows officials have reviewed birth certificates or passports to ensure license holders are U.S. citizens.

When she first moved to Utah, Lindsey was addicted to drugs. The daily mental battle she faced led her down a dark path, losing connections with friends and family along the way. She committed crimes to support her addiction and struggled on this path for over seven years, desperately trying and failing to get her life together along the way. Four misdemeanors and one infraction later, Lindsey had enough. (Name changed to protect anonymity.)

After a brief prison stay and a drug treatment program in 2017, Lindsey has now been sober for two years — and her life has drastically changed for the better. She’s a full-time student at Salt Lake Community College and maintains a job to provide for herself. But there’s one major obstacle holding her back from her full potential: a driver’s license.

Utah’s antiquated driver license laws punish individuals by taking away their opportunity to drive because of unpaid fines and fees. Even though none of Lindsey’s convictions have anything to do with driving, she can’t get her license back until she pays over $1,100 to the state.

Lindsey has completed her sentence and maintains a sober lifestyle, but a lack of a driver’s license inhibits her daily life, limiting her employment options and making it much more difficult to get to and from school and work.

In 2018, Utah state Rep. Cory Maloy sponsored successful legislation to ensure Utahns no longer get their driver’s license suspended automatically for non-driving drug offenses. And now, he’s determined to ensure that individuals with court debt won’t have to continue to struggle due to suspended driver’s licenses from unpaid government fines or fees.

Without a driver’s license, reliable transportation is difficult to obtain, making it hard for people to hold down stable employment — which is necessary to earn money to pay off large debts like Lindsey’s. Suspending a driver’s license is antithetical to the goal of fine repayment.

Lindsey is not alone in her plight. Utah suspends over 33,000 driver’s licenses per year for failure to pay or appear in court. Nationwide, 44 states suspend, revoke or deny driver’s licenses to people who fail to pay their government debts — resulting in over 11 million debt-related suspensions across the U.S.

This unfair punishment disproportionately impacts low-income people, keeping them at a perpetual disadvantage. And when desperation hits, many will continue to drive on their suspended license to do simple but necessary tasks like going to the grocery store or picking their kids up from school. This inevitably leads to a cycle of further poverty and criminalization when they’re caught and subsequently fined and penalized further.

If this country wants to help indigent people with upward mobility, then state laws need to change to abolish the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt. Legal advocacy groups from the left and the right are coming together in a coalition called Free to Drive to help do just this around the country.

The ability to legally drive should not depend on one’s capacity to pay when they make a mistake. And for lower-level driving offenses, it shouldn’t be tied to their court appearances. For example, if a Utahn is pulled over for speeding, and then forgets to pay the associated fine, they are required to show up to court. If they fail to appear, it’s standard practice for a judge to issue a warrant for their arrest, which triggers a driver’s license suspension — far before they are ever convicted of wrongdoing.

Perhaps the license suspension is appropriate for an initial failure to appear for a more serious driving-related offense like a DUI, but for minor infractions and lower-level misdemeanors, prematurely suspending a person’s license for failure to appear causes more harm than good.

Lack of means is a major barrier for people like Lindsey, and holding them back from the greater earning potential that a driver's license can grant is unfair.

Utah has the ability to help change people’s lives for the better by stopping the ban on one’s driver’s license for unpaid court debt, and failure to appear for lower-level crimes. If they don’t, thousands of people will continue to suffer.

Molly Davis

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.