Press Release: Bipartisan U.S. Senate Bill Targets Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions

Bipartisan U.S. Senate Bill Targets Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions

The Driving for Opportunity Act is backed by U.S. Senators Coons and Wickers, as well as a diverse coalition of criminal justice, law enforcement, civil rights and conservative advocacy organizations

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act to create incentives to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Nationwide, at least 11 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees, not for any public safety reasons. This makes it harder for Americans to go to work to pay off their debts and places an unnecessary burden on police to enforce suspensions, expending resources that should go to public safety, increasing hostilities in the communities they serve, and putting officers and citizens at increased risk of infection during a pandemic.

Many states – red and blue – are moving to end this practice. The Driving for Opportunity Act would further incentivize states to stop this policy by repealing the federal mandate to suspend driver’s licenses for certain non-driving-related offenses and authorizing targeted grants to states that repeal laws suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

“Driver’s licenses enable millions of Americans to travel to and from work, their children’s schools, doctor’s appointments, and places of worship,” Senator Coons said. “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for Americans to pay their bills and care for their families, taking away someone’s driver’s license can make it nearly impossible to hold down a job and therefore pay back their debts. The Driving for Opportunity Act would end this practice that traps our most vulnerable populations in a cycle of debt while lifting an unnecessary and counterproductive responsibility from our police departments at a time when they are already carrying too heavy a burden.”

“Suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fines and fees is a counterproductive penalty for Americans who need a car to earn a living and take care of their family,” Senator Wicker said. “My home state of Mississippi banned the practice in 2018, and other states should be encouraged to follow our lead. I am glad to join Senator Coons to sponsor this legislation to ensure states are not penalized for declining to suspend drivers’ licenses for minor offenses unrelated to driving.”

The Driving for Opportunity Act is supported by a broad coalition of groups spanning the political spectrum, including civil rights and civil liberties advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense lawyers. These groups include the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Americans for Prosperity, Civil Rights Corps, Americans for Tax Reform, Due Process Institute, FreedomWorks, American Civil Liberties Union, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, SPLC Action Fund, National Criminal Justice Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Major Cities Chiefs Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Fair and Just Prosecution, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Justice Action Network, The Libre Initiative, Drug Policy Alliance, Digital Liberty, Prison Fellowship, and the JPMorgan Chase PolicyCenter.

“Taking away people’s licenses simply for driving-while-broke is bad for the economy, bad for public safety, and disastrous for so many families,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Policymakers must take urgent action to stop this cycle of poverty and punishment that’s fueling mass criminalization, economic inequality, and racial injustice.”

“No one should be denied the privilege of driving a car because of an unpaid fine or fee,” said Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform. “Denying a person a driver’s license because they owe money creates a modern version of the debtors prison – you cannot leave your house until you pay your debts, but you cannot pay your debt if you cannot go to work. This is wrong.”

“Suspending drivers’ licenses for non-public safety reasons such as unpaid fines and fees creates unnecessary hardships for those with limited means and is counter-intuitive to its intended goal,” said Mark Holden, Board Member of Americans for Prosperity. “A driver’s license could be the difference between maintaining a job or falling deeper into financial trouble, thereby making it more difficult to pay the court obligations in the first place. This bill will help states move towards a better system where drivers’ licenses are suspended only when they have a substantial nexus to public safety, rather than as a misguided stick.”

“This legislation is a critical step toward ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions, one of many abusive fines and fees collection practices,” said Emily Dindial, American Civil Liberties Union Advocacy and Policy Counsel. “Government reliance on fines and fees for revenue creates perverse incentives for courts and law enforcement to extract wealth from low-income black and brown communities that already experience racial profiling and excessive policing. We must end the predatory imposition and enforcement of fines and fees.”

“Driver’s license suspensions should be based on behavior that poses a risk to public safety such as impaired driving or excessive speeding, not on an inability to pay a or fee.  The MCCA supports the Driving for Opportunity Act and thanks Senator Coons and Senator Wicker for acting on behalf of law enforcement and the public,” said Chief Art Acevedo, Chief, Houston Police Department and President, Major Cities Chiefs Association.

“We applaud the introduction of the Driving for Opportunity Act, commonsense legislation that protects public safety and supports working people,” said LaShawn Warren, Executive Vice President for Government Affairs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  “Drivers licenses are crucial for many to ensure they are able to legally drive, support themselves and their families.  Suspending licenses because of unpaid fines and fees is cruel and only harms those already struggling.  We urge Congress to take this important first step towards addressing the criminalization of poverty by passing this bill quickly.”

“The suspension of driver’s licenses for issues that are not related to public safety, such as unpaid court fines or fees, missed child support payments, or drug possession charges that are unrelated to driving under the influence, disproportionately affects poorer communities and black and brown drivers. This poverty trap takes away one’s means to provide for oneself and one’s family by taking away the most common method of transportation—for reasons that are entirely unrelated to road safety and public wellbeing,” said David LaBahn, President and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.  “This Act addresses the crucial issue of driver’s license suspensions that do not support a public safety purpose.”

“Every year, millions of Americans have their driver’s license suspended because of unpaid fines and fees, threatening their access to work, education, childcare, and healthcare.  The Driving for Opportunity Act would encourage states to end this destructive practice, and allow law enforcement to focus on public safety instead of revenue collection,” said Holly Harris, Justice Action Network’s Executive Director.  “We are grateful that Senators Chris Coons and Roger Wicker are working across party lines to address this critical issue, and we encourage their colleagues to put people over politics by passing this legislation.”

“Suspending a person’s driver’s license is a significant barrier to getting and holding a job for many people in the U.S. The economic impact of COVID-19 highlights the urgency of removing this barrier,” said Heather Higginbottom, President of the JPMorgan Chase PolicyCenter. “The Driving for Opportunity Act will help unlock economic opportunity for those people denied the chance of a good job solely because they cannot afford to pay fines or fees.”

Research increasingly shows that suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees negatively impacts families, communities, and law enforcement:

  • Driver’s license suspensions lead to increased unemployment and underemployment. According to a report by the Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force in New Jersey, 42% of those who lost their licenses due to certain non-driving-related offenses lost their jobs as a result, and 45% of those who lost their jobs were unable to find new employment. 88% of those who were able to find another job reported a decrease in income. A Harvard Law School report called the suspension of driver’s licenses “one of the most pervasive poverty traps for poor people assessed a fine that they cannot afford to pay.”
  • It puts people at risk without benefit to public safety. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 75% of suspended drivers continue to drive, facing further fines, fees, and incarceration if they get pulled over. Police officers will then be required to make traffic stops as debt collectors, and unnecessary traffic stops can be unsafe, particularly during a pandemic.
  • Driver’s license suspensions take up law enforcement officers’ valuable time. In 2015, Washington State calculated that state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with suspensions for non-driving offenses. Arresting one person for driving with a suspended license can take nine hours of an officer’s time when considering all the paperwork required.
  • It disproportionately harms rural communities and minorities. Only 11% of rural residents have access to public transportation services. Studies show that Black and Latino people are more likely to be the subject of traffic enforcement and have their license suspended, despite comparable traffic violation rates.

For a one-pager on the Driving for Opportunity Act, please click here.

For the bill language, please click here.