Nationwide, at least 11 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees.
On Thursday, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Chris Coons, D-Del., celebrated committee passage of their Driving For Opportunity Act. This legislation would provide incentives to states that choose to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. It has been estimated that at least 11 million people nationwide have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees.
“Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees is counterproductive,” said Senator Wicker. “Americans need access to vehicles to work and to care for their families. With committee passage of our proposal, we are now one step closer to providing states meaningful incentives to follow Mississippi’s lead and adopt more workable enforcement practices.”
In March, Senators Wicker and Coons introduced this bill targeting debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew driver’s licenses over unpaid fines or fees. 77% of U.S. workers age 18+ drive themselves to work, and 83% of American adults drive multiple times a week.
In 2017, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety (MDPS) stopped suspending driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fines and fees. In 2018, MDPS restored the driver’s licenses of those who had their licenses suspended because of nonpayment of fees and waived the $100 reinstatement fee.
Wicker stated on social media that “As Mississippi recognized, suspending licenses for unpaid fines & fees is counterproductive. Americans need access to vehicles to work & to care for their families. We are one step closer to providing states meaningful incentives to adopt more workable enforcement practices.”
The Driving for Opportunity Act is backed by a diverse coalition of criminal justice, law enforcement, civil rights, and conservative advocacy organizations.
Groups that support this legislation include: Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Fines and Fees Justice Center, ACLU, National District Attorneys Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, Major County Sheriffs of America, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Civil Rights Corps, Due Process Institute, Fair & Just Prosecution, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Vision Zero Network, SPLC Action, The Libre Initiative, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Digital Library.
“No one should be denied the privilege of driving a car because of an unpaid fine or fee. 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,” said Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform.
“NDAA is proud to join our partners in the law enforcement and criminal justice reform community to rally behind the Driving for Opportunity Act. This vital legislation works to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for fines and fees, while reinvesting funding to assist communities in implementing this new policy. The bill strikes the right balance by allowing suspensions for public safety reasons while ending the practice of criminalizing poverty,” said Nelson Bunn, Executive Director of the National District Attorneys Association.
“This legislation is a critical step toward ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions, one of many abusive fines and fees collection practices. 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,” said Emily Dindial, Advocacy and Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Driving for Opportunity Act is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), John Boozman (R-AR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and James Lankford (R-OK).
A coalition letter in support of the bill is available here.
The one pager on the bill is available here.
The bill text is available here.