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Drivers license forfeits cost NC residents mobility and freedom
Inability to pay court fees hit poor hard
Published Friday, October 6, 2017 11:16 am
by Herbert L. White

North Carolina drivers who can’t afford to pay court costs are losing more than their licenses.

They’re risking jobs, economic mobility and jail.

A national study by the Legal Aid Justice Center found 1.2 million N.C. licenses have been suspended or revoked for failure to pay court debt, trailing only Texas’ 1.8 million. So-called license-for-payment systems often leaves low-income residents unable to drive legally to work, which puts their jobs at risk.

“By cutting people off from jobs, license-for-payment systems create a self-defeating vicious cycle,” report authors Mario Salas and Angela Ciolfi wrote in their executive summary. “A state suspends the license even though a person cannot afford to pay, which then makes the person less likely to pay once he or she cannot drive legally to work. The person now faces and unenviable choice: drive illegally and risk further punishment (including incarceration in some states), or stay home and forgo the needs of his or her family. In this way, license-for-payment systems create conditions akin to modern-day debtor’s prisons.”

The study analyzed license-for-payment systems in every state and Washington, D.C., and found:

• 43 states and Washington, D.C. suspend licenses for unpaid court debt. Only California, Kentucky, Georgia and Wyoming don’t suspend for unpaid debt at all

• Four states – Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Minnesota – require an ability to pay determination before suspending licenses for nonpayment

• 19 states have mandatory suspension laws for nonpayment following a missed court debt payment deadline and;

• Every state that suspends for unpaid costs deny reinstatement indefinitely until all debts are paid.

Although 29 states and Washington, D.C. use license-for-payment to punish nonpayment of debt for traffic cases only, 14 states suspend licenses for traffic and criminal court costs.

“License-for-payment systems have a disproportionate impact on low-income people,” the report concluded. “People in this group have fewer available resources to divert to paying court debt, and are therefore at greater risk of losing their licenses for nonpayment. While wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt, people living paycheck-to-paycheck with little or no savings and families to support may not be able to pay in a lump sum or consistently make payments on installment plans.”

There is growing criticism of license-for-payment, including the U.S. Justice Department, which has said such programs “raise significant public policy concerns” while lobbying government authorities to “avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety.”

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators also calls for alternatives, leaving suspensions as a tool to remove dangerous drivers behind the wheel.


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