Driver’s License Suspension for Unpaid Fines and Fees: The Movement for Reform


The restoration of 7,000 licenses by a program that helped drivers repay their debt led to an estimated GDP increase of $149.6 million.

Laws that suspend, revoke, or prevent driver’s licenses and restrict driving privileges can limit individuals’ access to employment, healthcare, family, and other necessities. Debt-based (nonpayment of traffic and court-related debt) driver license suspensions impact a conservative estimate of 11 million individuals nationwide. People of color who are more likely to experience poverty and be stopped, ticketed, arrested by law enforcement, and charged for traffic violations, are dramatically impacted by debt-based driver’s license suspensions. This article examines how litigation and legislation can be pathways to reform and ending debt-based restrictions. Litigants have focused arguments on equal protection and due process clauses. In the past five years, legislative advocacy in 22 states plus Washington D.C. has passed some level of reform to limit or end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, including legislation repealing laws to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees and comprehensive laws that also address the harms of the underlying fines and fees that continue to be in place. In attempts at reform, some states have made compromises that are problematic to the movement as a whole. This article also includes questions for advocates and policymakers to consider when tacking debt-based suspensions.

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Key Findings:

  • The cost of a $100 speeding ticket in California can be exacerbated to $490 after mandatory fees are added.
  • 40 percent of all driver’s license suspensions are for drug offenses unrelated to driving, unpaid traffic tickets, or unpaid child support.
  • In New York City, areas with the highest concentration of people of color are 2.5 times more likely to have their driver’s licenses suspended than those with the highest concentration of white residents. 
  • Fewer than three percent of suspension notices are for dangerous driving or other public safety concerns in Florida.
  • There has been litigation, with cases challenging the constitutionality of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees in Tennessee, Montana, Virginia, Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Washington, and South Carolina.
Joni Hirsch & Priya Sarathy Jones
University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform