Opinion: D.C. should stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines

Washington, D.C. has the opportunity to lead the nation in fines and fees reform: for Washington Post’s Opinion section, FFJC Co-Director Joanna Weiss and Tzedek DC’s Ariel Levinson-Waldman support legislation that would end license suspensions for unpaid traffic debt & require the DMV to restore suspended licenses.


Ariel Levinson-Waldman is the president and director-counsel of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit organization with the mission of safeguarding the rights of low-income D.C. residents facing debt-related crises. Joanna Weiss is co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate fees in the justice system and ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced.

No one should lose the right to drive because he or she can’t afford a fine.

No one should have to risk incarceration because he or she needs to drive to work, pick up kids or rush a family member to the hospital.

Yet, in the District, as in states throughout the country, the Department of Motor Vehicles automatically suspends the driver’s license of people who cannot afford to pay traffic-ticket debt, exposing them to the risks of the criminal-justice system. Since 2010, the District’s DMV has suspended more than 126,000 licenses for failure to pay traffic-ticket debt.

That needs to stop.

The District’s policy, under which an unpaid ticket leads to automatic suspension without regard to the person’s ability to pay, punishes low-income people simply for being poor.

The ostensible purpose of automatic suspension — to coerce people into paying their traffic debt — makes little sense and is counterproductive. Losing one’s license makes it only more difficult to earn the money to pay fines. Studies show a suspended license often leads to losing a job. Suspensions can reduce earnings by forcing workers to take less desirable but more accessible jobs or by limiting the hours they can work because, without a car, commutes take longer.

Automatic license suspensions don’t just perpetuate poverty, they also criminalize it. As a practical matter, D.C. residents have been priced out of housing near public transportation and often have no choice but to drive with a suspended license when critical obligations arise. As a result, thousands have been arrested for driving on a suspended license and then are saddled with the risk of jail time and multi-thousand-dollar fines.

Unsurprisingly, these arrests fall disproportionately on our communities of color. Between 2011 and 2016, an estimated 80 percent of D.C. drivers who lost their license for failure to pay were African American.

Arresting people too poor to pay doesn’t make us any safer and does nothing to get fines and penalties paid. Rather, those arrests make us less safe by destabilizing families and by diverting law enforcement resources from crime.

Fortunately, the D.C. government is on the verge of taking important action to address these problems. On July 10, the D.C. Council passed the Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act of 2018, which includes common-sense provisions that will end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic debt and require the DMV to restore licenses suspended on that basis.

While some may worry this proposal will cost the city money by reducing fines collected, it is more likely to boost revenue by eliminating the costs associated with thousands of needless arrests and prosecutions and by reducing the funds paid by the city over time to support and assist those who lose their jobs because of license suspensions.

The bill is not perfect. While the District will not suspend driver’s licenses immediately, if traffic or parking debt of more than $100 remains due when a person’s license expires, the DMV will deny the license renewal. That, too, should be addressed by future reforms.

Though Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has not taken a public position on these reforms, we are encouraged by her thoughtful leadership in ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for drug convictions unrelated to use of a vehicle and for her pilot program that helps formerly incarcerated residents avoid the suspension of their licenses for unpaid debts. We urge her to sign this legislation as a critical additional step toward needed reform.

CaliforniaMississippi and Maine have ended their license-suspension laws. States that have not done so are beginning to face consequences: A federal judge ruled this summer that Tennessee’s driver’s license-revocation law is unconstitutional and ordered the state to stop revoking licenses for outstanding fees and fines and reinstate the licenses that had been suspended under the law.

The District has the opportunity to be at the front of this growing wave of reform. Let’s end automatic license suspensions for unpaid debts and keep people driving lawfully and on the road to economic security.