Ability to Pay and the Consequences of License Suspension

by Brendan Cardella-Koll

It is no secret that the debt collection schemes that courts impose across the country disproportionately impact indigent individuals, even sometimes to the point of functioning as modern debtors’ prisons.[1] One such scheme, which has become the target of recent litigation in Tennessee, calls for the suspension of an individual’s license for failure to pay traffic fines.[2] The lawsuit targets this scheme as an unduly harsh and discriminatory debt collection method against poor residents.[3] The complaint alleges that courts impose fines without consideration of an individual’s ability to pay and then notifies the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security (“the Department”) of a failure to pay without any mention of the reason for nonpayment.[4] The Department is not required to make any inquiry into the reason for nonpayment before suspending a license, and Tennessee law imposes additional fees for the reinstatement of licenses suspended for failure to pay traffic fines.[5] In multiple other jurisdictions, debt collectors do not seek to determine an individual’s ability to pay nor do they allow indigent individuals to establish any sort of payment plan for the traffic fine.[6] As a result, if an individual is brought before the court for a traffic offense with an attached fine, the individual must be able to pay the fine in full or face the suspension of his or her license.

While the lawsuit in Tennessee questions the constitutionality of such a debt collection scheme, the legislature should think long and hard about the fairness and practical consequences of allowing punishment. These suspensions present many indigent individuals with very few options. Individuals need to pay the fines, which will typically require that they drive to work—or drive to find work—to maintain some standard of living, yet in doing so they risk incurring more fines for driving with a suspended license.[7] Alternatively, they could choose not to go to work, take kids to school or childcare, buy groceries, or complete any other necessary daily activity that requires a car. Although it is true that many individuals commute to work via public transportation or other means that do not require a license, many communities are not sufficiently connected with public transit.[8] In these communities, a license is a key component of financial stability. Taking a person’s license away does not simply make an individual less mobile, but may also result in the loss of employment, decreased school attendance, and the inability to access critical resources such as food, childcare, and medical care, thereby perpetuating a cycle of poverty.[9] Without access to a way to work, individuals will be unable to keep up other financial obligations and potentially incur other fines and fees that could put their housing, family or medical conditions at risk.

Faced with a similar issue, California recently passed legislation prohibiting the suspension of licenses for failure to pay traffic fines.[10] The California legislation is commendable because it also implements a requirement to consider an individual’s ability to pay traffic fines.[11] Additionally, California courts now allow for payment plans or a community service substitution instead of a one-time fine.[12] This method represents stronger and fairer policy because it allows individuals to keep their licenses and all of the necessities that go along with mobility, and allows for adjustments in punishment to avoid perpetuating a cycle of poverty. It is far too common that those living in poverty feel a disproportionally greater weight of the justice system. States around the country with court debt collection schemes should take a serious look at the disparate treatment of impoverished individuals and disconnect inability to pay from additional punishment.

[1] Report on the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, U.S. Dep’t Justice, Civil Rights Div. 55 (March 4, 2015).

[2] Complaint at 5-6, Robinson v. Purkey, No. 3:17-cv-1263, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165480 (M.D. Tenn. filed Sept. 13, 2017) (citing Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 55-50-502(a)(1), (a)(1)(H), (I) (West 2015)).

[3] Id. at 3.

[4] Id. at 2.

[5] Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-12-129(b) (West 2015); Complaint, supra note 2, at 5.

[6] See, e.g., Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-395 (2016); see also Joseph Shapiro, Can’t Pay Your Fines? Your license Could Be Taken, NPR (Dec. 29, 2014 6:19 PM), http://www.npr.org/2014/12/29/372691960/cant-pay-your-fines-your-license-could-be-taken.

[7] See Shaila Dewan, Driver’s License Suspensions Create Cycle of Debt, N.Y. Times (Apr. 14, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/us/with-drivers-license-suspensions-a-cycle-of-debt.html.

[8] See Gillian B. White, Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality, Atlantic (May 16, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/stranded-how-americas-failing-public-transportation-increases-inequality/393419/.

[9] See Sandra Gustitus, Access to Driving and License Suspension Policies for the Twenty-First Century Economy, Mobility Agenda (June 2008), http://research.policyarchive.org/20441.pdf.

[10] Sophia Bollag, California to Stop Suspending Licenses for Traffic Fines, Associated Press (June 28, 2017), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/california/articles/2017-06-28/california-to-stop-suspending-licenses-for-traffic-fines.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.