Molly Davis: Stop suspending driver licenses for unpaid court debt

Utah Legislature should pass HB143 and remove a barrier to offenders getting back on their feet.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Pastor Dave was finally starting to feel back in control of his future after working steadily at his new job as a delivery driver for a moving company in Salt Lake. For the first time in years, he was gaining steady income and was fully self sufficient.

But more importantly to him, he had turned his life to Christ, had become a pastor, and was ready to help people on their spiritual journey — especially former convicts. A few years earlier, Dave had been in prison himself, and he knew how difficult the transition from bars to freedom could be. He was ready to help.

Then he got a letter in the mail informing him that his driver license would be suspended if he didn’t pay off his court debt — totaling to over $10,000 — in full.

Pastor Dave was devastated. There aren’t many jobs that were willing to give someone like him, a convict with a permanent criminal record, a chance at full time employment. Now, he found himself standing in the face of despair, and mounting debt.

Unfortunately, Pastor Dave’s story is far from unique. He’s just one of the thousands of victims who’ve fallen prey to a Utah law that suspends a person’s driver’s license until they pay off their court debt. According to data from Utah Courts, an average of about 30,000 Utahns have their license suspended every year for failure to pay court debt, and for failure to appear in court for lower level driving offenses.

But Rep. Cory Maloy plans to change that law by sponsoring House Bill 143, “Driver License Suspension Amendments.”

The bill passed 10-1 in the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 22, and now it’s on to the house floor. During the committee hearing, concerns over the bill were raised by a number of prosecutors and law enforcement officers who claim that the legislation would only make it more difficult to get people to comply with paying their court debt, and therefore many fines will simply go unpaid.

But that’s not necessarily true. In fact, in California, one of 13 other states who have already stopped suspending licenses for unpaid court debt, there is limited research to show otherwise — debt collection was more successful after the suspension policy had ended.

One reason for this is a fairly obvious fact that when a person retains access to reliable transportation, they will be able to keep their jobs, which gives them the resources they need to be able to pay off the debt. This is especially important for indigent Utahns who can barely afford to pay off the fine even with their current employment and license.

And while Utah courts do permit community service in lieu of paying a fine in most lower-level cases, many are simply unaware of this option, as most judges aren’t proactively offering it to defendants. That needs to change.

Unless you live and work in downtown Salt Lake, having a driver’s license is essential — especially in the rural parts of the state. Yet, to the detriment of those who are struggling financially, the state has made a bad habit of taking away people’s licenses for debts of all sizes. And they won’t give it back until it’s paid off in entirety, putting indigent individuals, who often don’t have the luxury of working from home, in a spot where they must either drive illegally to and from work, or attempt to find another job.

Utah’s Legislature can put a stop to this by passing HB 143 to allow people to work their way out of debt without making their lives more difficult.

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.

Molly Davis is an Opportunity Fellow with Young Voices and a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.