The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
June 19, 2020

The Cost of Driving in America: Criminalization of Poverty through Fines and Fees

“The biggest problem you’ve probably never heard of affects over 10 million people in the United States.”

Millions of Americans are entangled in a little-publicized, economic and legal catch-22 that impedes their ability to earn a living and meet basic family and personal needs. The problem? Over 11 million driver’s license suspensions across the nation due to unpaid “court debt” (e.g., fines and fees). Take a moment to watch the Fines and Fees Justice Center’s “Free to Drive” national campaign video.

The Issue

Currently forty-four U.S. States and the District of Columbia have laws in place suspending, revoking, or refusing to renew driver’s licenses for those with unpaid fines and fees. While differences in state laws vary, the implications remain the same. In many cases, driver’s license suspensions under these circumstances lead to spiraling repercussions that push recipients ever further into hardship. The inability to drive can result in a loss of income, making it impossible to pay associated fines and fees, leading to even more fines and fees to pay, making it impossible to ever escape a license suspension. Faced with the need to drive to hold a job and generate income or to just obtain essentials, such as food, individuals may be compelled to drive despite a license suspension, thereby by raising the specter of incarceration. As 86% of Americans report driving to work on a daily basis, driving has become a practical necessity for most, especially in areas where public transportation options are scarce. Beyond employment and food, a driver’s license provides accessibility to healthcare, education, court appointments, and loved ones.

Furthermore, the way in which driver’s license suspensions for fines and fees affect people around the United States is highly inequitable. At its crux, suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees criminalizes poverty, punishing those who cannot pay with even more fines, fees, criminal charges, and possible jail time. Driver’s license suspensions under these circumstances also disproportionately impact people of color. A 2018 report by the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School found that 80% of people arrested in New York City for driving with a suspended license were Black or Latino. 

Other Reasons to Be Concerned

Aside from the great burden a driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines and fees poses to recipients, enforcing this method undermines public safety. For example, Washington State law enforcement in 2015 spent approximately 70,848 hours dealing with issues of license suspensions for non-driving related offenses. Spending so much time addressing matters related to unpaid fines and fees ultimately decreases the amount of time and resources devoted to tackling violent crime, as one study found that a mere 1% increase in debt-based revenues—money from fees, fines, and forfeitures—is linked to a 3.7% decrease in solving violent crimes. 

Despite the problems debt-based driver’s license suspensions pose for individuals and the country as a whole, the majority of states still have laws in place that suspend, revoke, or prohibit the renewal of driver’s license for failure to pay fines and fees.

Existing U.S. Laws for Failure to Pay
States with Proposed Legislation Reform of License Suspension, Revocation, or Renewal Practices for Failure to Pay
Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida
(Credit: Free to Drive Campaign)

Pro Bono Initiatives

While the general public largely remains unaware of the problems associated with driver’s license suspensions for fines and fees, there are fortunately a variety of current initiatives committed to reforming this issue at the national, state, and local levels. 

In September of 2019, over 100 organizations across the United States, including various policy, advocacy, legal, grassroots and research-based organizations, initiated the “Free to Drive” campaign. This campaign aims to promote reform surrounding the issue of debt-based license suspensions and advocates for the removal of laws mandating license suspension for unpaid fines and fees or missed court appearances. 

At the state level, pro bono efforts to promote driver’s license reinstatement exist at varying degrees and often require high levels of collaboration between state agencies, legal organizations, the courts, and state bar associations. Listed below are examples of different states with relatively high levels of pro bono initiatives relating to driver’s license restoration.

California

  • Legal Services of Northern California: Provides pro bono assistance in 23 counties in Northern California and includes driver’s license restoration under its service priorities for enhancing economic stability. 

Florida

  • Florida Rural Legal Services “Drive to Work Initiative”: Initiative to help low-income residents of South Central Florida restore driver’s licenses after suspensions due to unpaid court fees. Provides advice, representation, and necessary transportation to get to work, medical appointments, and take children to activities. 
  • Leon County Driver’s License Restoration Clinics: Clinics held by Judges Stephen Everett and J. Layne Smith to assist Leon County residents with resolving problems related to debt-related license suspension. Clinics incorporate collaboration between public defenders, state attorneys, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, court clerks, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Program has also been duplicated in Broward County.)
  • Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida Driver’s License Reinstatement Clinics: Collaborative effort between Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, and various local and state governments to help Orange County residents with license suspensions due to things like court fines, traffic tickets, and overdue child support fees.

North Carolina

Ohio

  • Franklin County Driver’s License Reinstatement Program: Pro bono collaboration between Franklin County Municipal Court Clerk’s Office, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, and the Ohio State Bar Association to help residents with driver’s licenses reinstatement. Event offers assistance from attorneys and other legal professionals as well as bankruptcy advisors, auto insurance companies, representatives from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and representatives from Franklin County Job and Family Services.
  • Perry Country Driver’s License Restoration Clinic: Driver’s license restoration clinic for residents of rural Perry County, Ohio. Collaboration between Perry County Municipal Court, Ohio State Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and Perry County Department of Job and Family Services to provide residents with pro bono legal services associated with driver’s license reinstatement, as well as training and insurance for participating attorneys.
  • Toledo Municipal Court Driver’s License Clinics: Driver’s license restoration clinics in the city of Toledo jointly managed between the Toledo Bar Association Pro Bono Legal Services Program, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., the State of Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the Toledo Legal Aid Society, and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In 2019, the city of Toledo held a total of seven clinics attended by nearly 750 people where over $340,000 in fines and fees were reduced or waived.

Texas

  • Legal Aid of Northwest Texas: In 2019, Legal Aid of Northwest Texas expanded its Driver’s License Restoration Project to include pro bono volunteers through a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Pro Bono Innovation Grant. 

Virginia

  • Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center: Offers various pro bono legal services (including driver’s license restoration) to low-income clients around the state of Virginia through their JusticeServer online case management and referral system.

Washington State

  • Northwest Justice Project: Free legal services available to eligible low-income Washington residents statewide for certain driver’s license suspension-related matters (excludes license suspension due to unpaid child support or criminal traffic convictions like DUI’s).
  • Attorney General’s Office Veterans Legal Clinic Spokane: Pro bono legal services for military personnel or veterans with income at or below 400% of the federal poverty level who live, or are stationed, in Washington State. The clinic provides assistance for a variety of different civil legal matters, including driver’s license restoration services. 

Pro bono volunteers and activists play a pivotal role in facilitating independence, leadership, and self-advocacy against the criminalization of poverty. Whether you prefer working on behalf of individual clients, nonprofit groups, or in federal advocacy, there are many possibilities to use your skills and talents. We hope you will be inspired and get involved! 

Have you done pro bono work supporting driver’s license restoration? Please reach out to us at lawfirm@probonoinst.org and share your experience.

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member

Hat tip to PBI intern Brooke Weichel for her significant assistance.