March 15, 2019
In 1999, Steve Smith was charged in Pennsylvania with underage drinking. He was 14-years-old. Steve Smith is not his real name, but his story is real and tragic.
The penalty for underage drinking in Pennsylvania includes a driver’s license suspension. Due to Smith’s poor decision as a child he was ineligible for a license when he turned 16. Smith never got a driver’s license, but he drove.
He was convicted of driving under suspension in 2003 and again in 2006. Each time his suspension was extended. In 2013 he was convicted of driving without a license. Earlier this year he was arrested again for driving under suspension.
Now, Smith gainfully employed for more than nine years, married and the father of four children faces six months in jail - 21 years after a youthful indiscretion.
Suspending an individual’s driver’s license for non-driving offenses is short-sighted and counterproductive.
In Smith’s case it was for conduct as a 14-year-old. For some it may be the result of using marijuana, failing to pay parking tickets or being too poor to pay non-traffic fines or court costs.
In Alabama, a federal lawsuit was recently filed challenging the practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who cannot pay traffic tickets as a violation of the 14th Amendment by “punishing persons simply because they are poor.”
According to The Associated Press, the federal lawsuit seeks to prohibit the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines. The suit also asks the court to require state agencies to reinstate any driver’s license previously suspended for nonpayment.
A U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the police in Ferguson, Missouri - known for the violent unrest after a police officer involved killing of an unarmed black teen - “found that in Ferguson, a small city with a population of just 21,000, more than 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants issued by the court as of December 2014,” with many of those warrants having “nothing to do with criminal behavior.”
A recent forum at the John Jay College in New York entitled “Cash Register Justice” explored the exploitation of the poor to finance criminal justice costs through onerous fines and court costs for otherwise minor offenses.
Research data shared at the forum, suggested that in May 2018, an estimated 7 million Americans had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines and fees. According to The Crime Report, 85 percent of Americans drive themselves to work.
Forty-three states have laws that suspend driver’s licenses, revoke licenses, or deny renewals for unpaid fines and fees. Defenders of these practices claim that this is the only coercive tool at their disposal, but The Crime Report points to statistics that say it does not work.
Last year Mississippi stopped suspending people’s driver’s licenses purely because they had not paid court fines and fees. Licenses in Mississippi continue to be suspended for people who do not respond to citations or if a judge holds someone in contempt for failing to pay fines.
A recent California study found “a litany of practices and policies that turn a citation offense into a poverty sentence,” with add-on fees for minor offenses sometimes doubling or quadrupling the original fines. According to NPR, the report says that once a person’s license is suspended, they become even more unable to pay their debts, entering “long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”
In some states, the court will let an offender spend time in jail in exchange for paying a fine or court costs - a debtor’s prison for those cloaked in poverty and unable to pay.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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