Reckless Lawmaking: How Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspension Laws Impose Harm and Waste Resources


11 million people are not allowed to drive because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees across the United States.

This report examines the impacts of suspending driver’s licenses as a consequence of unpaid fines and fees and failure to appear in court. 16 individuals who had their license suspended in Colorado, Florida, and Minnesota because of unpaid fines and fees or failure to appear in court, were interviewed about the impact of the suspension and any further engagement with the criminal justice system. The authors found that the majority of interviewees did not pay because they did not have the money to do so, lacked proper notice and information to comply and that financial instability and mental health challenges resulted from the suspension. The report also highlights the barriers from Texas’s lack of data collection that would accurately determine the fiscal cost of debt-based suspensions.

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Key Findings:

  • Driving with a suspended license is punishable by fines, jail time, or both. 
  • Every year 100,000 Coloradans lose their driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic debt or failure to appear in court, making up 86.7 percent of all driving license suspensions.
  • In Florida, $880 million in fines and fees were imposed in criminal and traffic cases, and 1.2 million license suspension notices were issued to people unable to pay them in 2019.
  • There are an estimated 80,000 active license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees and failure to appear in court in Minnesota. 
  • The interviewees’ original fines and fees ranged from $30 to $800; the totals now owed range from $200 to $9,000.
  • Almost half of the interviewees were arrested at least once for their inability to pay fines and fees or their failure to appear in court for outstanding debt. 
  • Only six of the 16 interviewed were given the option of a payment plan; the rest were expected to pay off their tickets in full.
  • Half of those interviewed did not know their license had been suspended until they were pulled over by law enforcement or attempted to renew their license. 
  • According to interviewees, the timeframe to reinstate their licenses ranged from over a month to eight years; some have still not been able to get their licenses reinstated.    
  • More than 85 percent of people in the United States drive to work. Interviewees lost income due to license suspensions because many had to give up their jobs and/or take lower-paying jobs.


  • Stop suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees and failure to appear.
  • Retroactively reinstate licenses currently suspended for failure to pay fines and fees and failure to appear.
  • Eliminate all fees or charges that fund operating costs, overhead costs, or unrelated government functions. 
  • Replace statutorily prescribed dollar amounts for fines with amounts that are proportionate to income level.
  • Courts should provide information about payment obligations and required court appearances. Courts should also improve their processes for suspension notification and license reinstatement. 
  • States should collect demographic data in all cases where fines and fees are imposed and report findings on an annual basis. 
  • States should collect data to determine the scope of the impact of fines and fees, cost of enforcement, and collateral costs of license suspensions.
Emily Dindial, Emily Greytak, and Kana Tateishi