The Issue of Driver License Suspensions

I want to highlight the issue of driver license suspensions in light of Arizona ending the practice for unpaid debts. This is one of those policy issues that falls in this uncanny valley bad enough to be a serious detriment, but not so serious that the general public will care much.

To briefly summarize, for the vast majority of places in the US, you need a personal vehicle for transportation. You also need a valid driver's license to drive this vehicle. Simultaneously, your license can be suspended for a laundry list of reasons, including unpaid traffic tickets. Driving with a suspended license is enforced by (get this) more fines, or sometimes, criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

I'm not exaggerating the latter. I first encountered the issue while working on a research project examining statewide court records, and we were able to estimate that roughly 20% of all criminal prosecutions were for 'driving with a suspended license' (DWLS for short). I want to acknowledge that sometimes a license gets suspended because an individual has 5 DUIs on their record, but the vast overwhelming majority of suspensions were for unpaid traffic tickets and unpaid child support. I then saw the impact of my research when I first started working as a public defender on misdemeanors, where literally 40-60% of cases filed in lower courts were for DWLS. It was an agonizing and dizzying display of waste in my opinion, because the prosecutor's office hated the law, but not enough to stop enforcing it completely, so we'd waste hours and hours of courtroom time dealing with criminally prosecuting random people with a crime, getting them scared shitless enough to show to court ("Am I going to jail???" was a common question for these virgin babies), only for the charges to get reduced to a fine at first appearance.

The most egregious example I witnessed was a guy with clear mental health issues who was arrested and booked into jail solely for a DWLS. He had a breakdown in jail and started throwing feces all over his cell. His entire family showed up to court, and he could only be brought out restrained on a gurney and in a turtle suit. Problem is, you can't prosecute someone when they're legally incompetent, so the next step would be to ask for a competency evaluation. The defense attorney basically shamed the prosecutor into dropping the case by saying "You seriously want me to ask for a psychological evaluation for a DWLS?"

The modal scenario involved someone getting a traffic ticket, they either never get notice or forget about paying it, eventually their license gets suspended for unpaid fines, and then they get pulled over unaware their license was suspended, except now they're charged with a crime. The judge I was working in front of was of a similar mind to me, and they would routinely just wipe people's debt clean.

The whole policy just never made any sense to me, and it seemed like the very definition of capriciousness. If someone is too poor to pay fines, how does it make sense to take away their ability to drive to work? I saw a steady stream of people who accumulated thousands and thousands of dollars in unpaid ticket fines and they just shrugged with "what the fuck do you expect me to do? not drive to work?". Ostensibly, the logic was perhaps that if you put enough of a squeeze on, some people will be motivated to pay, and maybe that was enough of an incentive to warrant the institution.

There is also some parallel with how municipalities (like Ferguson MO) had their budgets structured, relying extensively on deputizing law enforcement was de facto tax collectors. Part of what the DOJ highlighted when examining Ferguson and areas around it was the resentment that would build up over years of this arrangement, especially since there were plenty of examples of (typically white) people pulling strings with court staff to get their fees waived. There's no reason to trust law enforcement if they're responsible for putting you into debt, and then also responsible for jailing for not paying that debt.

To be clear, I'm not advocating for no traffic enforcement at all. I just find little sense in the structure of "pay money, and if you don't, pay more money, and if you don't, go to jail". I know enough grindingly poor people to understand how devastating having to fork over $100 can be, whereas many would barely blink. One idea would be using a 'points' system for driver's license infractions, that way it at least hits rich and poor alike. Except for the issue of insurance, I don't see any public safety purpose of preventing people from driving because they have unpaid fines.