Driver License Suspension: Debt Bondage for Modern Times?

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

wadlDrivers are subject to license suspension for a variety of legitimate reasons: Conviction for a criminal traffic offense; interests of safety; and for other administrative violations. Essentially it could be ranked into two categories: safety or punitive. While the former is generally not controversial, the implementation of the latter is generally understood to be reasonable. But, in some situations it can be argued by some to be a form of bondage involving what leads to a multi-year ordeal of suspension where the licensee is held in demand for increasing levels of penalties owed to the state, placing what could be argued to be a vicious cycle of artificially created debt that many find difficult to satisfy.

A significant issue in several states lies with the revolving door of driver license suspensions. A typical example would be a defendant who is cited for a violation and receives a license suspension as a penalty. Often there is a monetary fine that must be paid in addition to other sanctions to receive the license reinstatement. Often times these fines are of such cost that those subject to license suspension have difficulty paying and therefore their license and consequently their livelihood is taken away. Often what starts as a simple traffic ticket that goes unpaid leads to effectively a debt bondage, where the driver is required to pay increasing fines, interest, and assessments with little for relief.

 

To have a perspective on some of the various issues a brief and basic history of license suspension can be helpful. We will use Washington State as a reference. In the 1980’s the standard procedure was if a person did not pay a traffic infraction, an FTA/FTC (Failure to appear / Failure to comply) was placed onto their driver’s record. When the license was to be renewed, renewal was conditional on paying the penalties of the traffic infractions plus a fee. The license was then invalid if not renewed with settling the outstanding violations. Later a situation began to arise in the state where the amount of FTAs for some grew with time and there were cases where habitual violators would have in excess of 20 or more, leading to concerns by the Department of Licensing and the legislature of a growing problem of lack of responsibility.

To address this a criminal traffic law was enacted that made it a misdemeanor offense to drive with having two or more FTAs on record, meaning that a custodial arrest could be levied against the driver. Progress was made on reducing the FTAs where a forced responsibility was placed on the driver if they continued driving and did not address their outstanding tickets. Due to court decisions and other legislative changes the remedy sought by the state changed. There were enacted three degrees of license suspension (First through Third Degree). The legislature directed the courts and the Department of Licensing to order a Suspension of a driver license in the third degree for failing to comply or pay fine for a traffic violation. The difference from previous approaches was now license suspension was effectively automatic for FTA and Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree was a misdemeanor. A driver who failed to pay a traffic infraction could easily find themselves in a situation where they were stopped for a broken tail light, their license was checked by the Law Enforcement Officer, and when it was found they had a suspension on their record they could then be arrested even if they did not know their license had been suspended.

Economically it could be as simple as being stopped for throwing a cigarette out a window and receiving a $1,000.00+ fine, failing to pay or appear, receiving an additional penalty, later stopped and cited for DWLS, fined an additional $250.00, plus penalties. Soon penalties are levied and even more risk of being stopped as the suspension times is added. Soon several thousand dollars is owed to the state which the driver is now unable to pay easily.

During the 1980’s an element in the previous driving while license suspended law, and accompanying case and administrative law, required that the state prove the driver was given notice of the suspension via certified mail or otherwise and that a certified copy of driver’s records be provided to the court. Presently, no notice of this kind is required. A driver could find themselves subject to a summary suspension and a surprise at a traffic stop. And thus can begin the spiral of suspension and increasing penalties.

For some it can be a wakeup call that prompts them to action, others continue their pattern or inability to pay. The issues can be difficult even for those who want to pay but are unable and it couples with issues such as economic, life and social needs of the person. Driving in modern America is unquestionably a requirement for many. Public transportation is not widely available especially in rural areas or small towns. With the increasing mobility of society and increasing distances during commute, along with more single parent households the options available to some are limited. Often it is the case where a driver must choose between their jobs and risking being stopped and cited for driving while suspended. The risk is further aggravated by rules that proscribe adding additional time to the suspension if subsequent DWLS citations are received by the driver, it can be up to one year in some cases.

The length of the suspension adds to the risk of being caught, more fines added and more penalties or even jail time sentenced. Soon many find that they are unable to escape the trap they are in with this revolving system. One also has to address the issue of retribution. In many ordinary crimes such as theft, restitution is mandated to the victim of the theft where the damage is the economic loss suffered by them caused by the defendant. But with suspension and traffic violation penalties to a lesser degree it is not as clear. The penalties and fines are largely artificial constructs where the state cannot argue significant actual economic loss. But to the suspended driver, they can be overwhelming.

Often it can be years before a driver has the means to satisfy the demands of the state. Where does the state balance the need to deter traffic violations, encourage responsibility for those liable to the state for the fines district courts order, and not shackle individuals to more and more debt for which they might not be able to pay even with the best of intentions? When the laws were changed to mandate suspension upon failure to pay a traffic fine, the number of suspended drivers increased tremendously to the observations of some in the field. Now there were more suspended drivers, the courts were increasingly flooded with DWLS 3rd cases and other criminal traffic cases were crowded for court time.

With more drivers liable to the fine spiral one might question whether the fines are treated as deterrence or a source of revenue. So what would be the balance? One possible solution might be community service in lieu of fines where a suspended driver could elect to perform voluntary services at a charity, social or government agency to earn credits toward the arrears fines. But could there be a moral issue with doing this such as creating high levels of debt to the state to cause people to go into essentially servitude?

If the labor credits were low certainly this could be argued. For this matter to be honorable a person should be able to reduce by a substantial amount their fines and restore their licenses by an honest day’s work. But for some this might be a realistic option. Another consideration might be the sheer numbers of suspended drivers and a limited amount of available work for them to engage in, plus the administrative overhead of servicing this program.

Another approach would be deference programs where the prosecutor’s office offers a defendant the option to enter into a deferred prosecution in exchange for participation in classes or services to learn skills and alternatives to avoid the downward spiral and perhaps offer lessons with a small amount of social work to educate and arrive at a payment plan in exchange for the suspension being lifted, (as the carrot) under penalty of enforcing the original suspension penalty for non-compliance with the program (the stick). Or alternatively, a realization that increasing penalties only do so much before they are ineffective and in-fact become rather counterproductive, might be warranted. A cap on penalties might be reasonable to consider and coupled with the possibility of jail time for wanton offenders might be a deterrent for the wayward who continually demonstrate respect for the law.

We have to ask each other if it is in the interest of driving safety ensured by consigning people to debt and perpetually being subjected to sanctions or are there better ways to balance accountability with pragmatic understandings of human nature?

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

19 thoughts on “Driver License Suspension: Debt Bondage for Modern Times?

  1. It’s always ultimately, a money-grab by government in it’s eternal vigilance to steal from its citizens and enrich itself to the benefit of the local tyrants. License for this, license for that, penalize and punish to penury.

  2. Darren,
    Excellent topic, and certainly topical. We have a situation in my area and don’t know if it is replicated elsewhere or not. Our office does some work with Social Security Disability Determination Service. If a claimant has some claim of literacy or mental health problems, we see them. Many of the clients have substance abuse problems. I have a protocol for my interviews. One of the things I ask is how they got to my office, and if they have a current and valid driver’s license. It is not at all unusual for the conversation to go like this:

    Me: How did you get to our office today?

    Client: I drove.

    Me: Do you have a current and valid driver’s license?

    Client: Naw, I ain’t got no driver’s license.

    Me: Have you ever had one?

    Client: Yep, but they took it away from me.

    Me: Why did they take your license?

    Client: For DUI.

    Me: When was that?

    Client: About 1986 or 87, I don’t rightly remember.

    Me: You been driving all this time without a license, since 1987 or so?

    Client: Yeah.

    Me: Have you been arrested for driving without a license?

    Client: Yep, I don’t rightly remember how many times.

    Me: Have you been driving without insurance all this time?

    Client: Well, I ain’t never had no insurance before. It costs too much.

    Me: How many time have they put you in jail for driving without a license and no insurance?

    Client: I don’t know. A bunch of times. They keep me anywhere from three days to thirty days and let me go.

    Me: Have they taken your car away from you?

    Client: Yep, a bunch of times, especially when they get me for DUI.

    Me: What do you do when they take your car?

    Client: I can always find an old car that needs fixing up and get that. The most I ever paid for one was five hundred dollars.

    Me: I assume you have unpaid fines and court fees. If we added them all up, how much would you have to pay to get your license back?

    Client: I don’t know for sure. Maybe twenty or thirty thousand dollars. Maybe more than that, I just don’t know for sure.

    And so it goes. They simply cannot keep people like that in jail, because the jail does not have enough cells. Some even get turned loose before their 30 days are up because jail cells are needed for violent felony offenders. One offender made the news recently when he was arrested for DUI for about the 19th time.

  3. The suspended license thing is a nightmare for poor people. Making it even worse are the towing company fees that often get added when there is an arrest. For example, I pay less than $50 PER MONTH to store an extra vehicle at a storage facility on a paved surface, and security cameras, and a controlled entrance. This facility has to maintain its facilities, stay in business and make an income.

    By contrast, towing companies charge around $15 per day, or $450 per month. I have heard that one state allows charges of $30 per day, and this can be on raw land with a fence around it. I could not find a state by state breakdown, but I suspect I am being conservative with these amounts. This is in addition to any actual towing fees, about $100 as near as I can determine. Often, the vehicle can not be removed unless there is insurance on the vehicle, even if the person hires another company to move the vehicle to their home or some other place.

    It is nothing short of legalized theft. Another state scam is the hot check courts, where ridiculous judicial fees are added to the ridiculous bank charges and fees. I am surprised nobody has gone postal yet at a towing yard, or a hot check court.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  4. Darren,

    I’m so glad somebody wrote about this issue, the permutations of which have been rolling around in my mind for some time. There are three issues that I see raised by your piece sbout which we should be concerned.

    The first is that for much of this country we have a very deficient system of public transportation. What stems from that is the need for many people to depend on a car for work and for living. For those with less income this becomes a hardship because maintaining a car is an expensive proposition. If you are poor to begin with the need to have a car can make the effort to escape your economic situation harder, with few alternatives.

    Secondly, the anti-tax movement has ensured that States lack the money to provide the basic services they must provide. Since the executive and legislature can’t raise taxes overtly, they raise them covertly by increasing traffic fines, parking tickets, registration fee and license fees. These fees are really regressive taxation which affects those with less income more drastically than overt taxation. With the Catch 22 you bring up this can ultimately lead to a form of bondage.

    The third aspect is that when the government uses its power to regulate and ensure safety on our roads, that power becomes abusive when it morphs into a needed revenue source. The ultimate end is corruption in one form or another. In NY for instance it has been known for years that Officers have been given ticket quotas. Failure to meet these quotas can negatively affect an Officer’s career. Ultimately, the police lose sight of their real jobs of engorcing the law and esuring public safety, when the goal is violation production.

  5. Great topic Darren. It is amazing that serfdom has made its way back to the United States. With this kind of abusive prosecution and fine structures, being poor is now illegal in many parts of this country.

  6. Darren

    this problem also comes up with traffic cameras. i have an ex-sister in law who could not renew her tag when it became due. it seems the new jersey turnpike had a hold on it because of running a toll booth. try explaining that one, she has never been to new jersey, two, she has never had the tag on a 98 chevy cavalier, three, she didn’t want to go to new jersey to clear the matter up.

    to make a long story short, she couldn’t drive her truck for three months while they were clearing the matter up. then florida (where she lives) charged her for late tag renewal.

    and cameras don’t make mistakes.

  7. We are living in the Matrix.. Only instead of providing electricity for the machines. Our sole purpose in life is to provide cash for the state, and federal government…

  8. Off Topic but related: There was some discussion in one of the threads a bit ago about the forfeiture laws. Philly has raised it to a multi-million dollar a year business, 5.9m in 2010. The cops and DA there are just a band of brigands:

    Law designed to strip criminals of assets targets innocent homeowners

    “….the Philadelphia DA’s office files forfeiture motions on 300 to 500 private residences annually. It seizes and sells as many as 100 or more properties each year, bringing in more than $1 million annually in real estate sales alone. In 2010, the year the DA went after Bing’s house, it acquired 90 houses via forfeiture and auctioned 119 properties for $1.2 million.

    The money went directly to the DA’s office and to the Philadelphia police department, including the narcotics units involved in raids that resulted in the forfeitures.

    Forfeiture reports obtained from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General give only a general breakdown of how these funds are spent. The records show that the bulk of Philadelphia’s forfeiture money goes to “salaries” (the report does not say whose), and “municipal task force support.” The reports include a line-item for money spent on “Community Based Drug & Crime Fighting Programs” and “Witness Relocation and/or Protection Expenses.” In recent years, both of those items read “$0.00.”

    Money from housing sales in 2010 represented about a fifth of all the DA’s $5.9 million in forfeiture income that year. The rest was generated by seizure of cash, cars and other property. Last fall, a story by this reporter in The Philadelphia City Paper disclosed that the DA’s office moves to seize virtually every dollar in cash found by police in stops — even amounts of $100 or less. Under the law, prosecutors need not secure a conviction in the underlying criminal case to keep the cash.”

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/08/05/law-designed-to-strip-criminals-of-assets-targets-innocent-homeowners/

  9. Darren, great topic. This is a constant source of trouble for the poor. Often driving is needed to get to a job, and the government hinders it by these excessive fees and fines. I think one solution is to have a statute of limitations kind of thing where after so much time, there is automatic amnesty. Prior to that time, perhaps there could be a way to waive fees if the person was mentored by someone at a jobs services office, unemployment office, or homeless services organization… somebody that can like take responsibility to help rehabilitate the person.

    One person I was helping who had been homeless, I got him in an apartment and found him a job, and he needed a car to get to work, so I gave him an old car to use. A few weeks later, he ran out of gas and parked the car on the side of the road. He did not tell me about it immediately, which upset me when I learned about it because I could have come out there and helped tow the car back to his apartment. He said that I had done so much for him, he just didn’t want to bother me with it. Ugh. Anyway, the government impounded the car, and between the towing fees and storage fees, I could not afford to get the car back. The guy ended up losing his job, and I had to help him find another one that he could get to using a bicycle.

    So in this case, the outrageous fees the government charges for infractions like this are really oppressive on the poor. I think the lawyers and politicians who create these laws make so much money and have so much free tax money available to do what they want that they have no idea how the laws they make oppress the poor. It has come to the place that we really need a percentage, a sliding scale so-to-speak, not just for taxes, but for the fines and penalties that they impose on people. The poor always get the short end of the stick.

  10. About traffic cameras. A fellow from the next country over had his pickup truck stolen. He reported it of course, and the tag and description was distributed to law enforcement agencies all over the country. The truck was finally found in Texas, abandoned by the thief, and he eventually got it back.

    During the time the truck was missing, the thief was caught by a traffic camera and a ticket was issued, which came to the owner’s mailbox. He tried to contact the speed camera people, as well as the police in the nearby city where the camera was located. They ignored him while he racked up penalties. He was ready to pay it off out of frustration, when he happened to run into the county sheriff one day and told him the sad story. The sheriff told him to hold off paying it, and let him check it out.

    According to my sources, the sheriff made a very hot phone call to the chief of police in the city where the camera was located. No one will talk about what was said in that phone call, but the ticket was cancelled that day.

    It should not come to the point where one must get the chief law enforcement officer in your county to intervene when a ticket is issued to somebody else.

  11. AY:

    I remember when in several states the suspension for child support law came into effect. To me it is both stupid and counterproductive. A driver license has nothing whatever to do with a person’s financial responsibility to a family member but at least in some areas the state is notorious for circumventing laws where the courts have given defendants certain rights by licensing everything under the sun then using administrative action against that license for bad behavior that might not be criminal otherwise. (of course then the suspended license while driving becomes the criminal matter)

  12. David M:

    The fines are what really get the poor folks. Usually the courts will allow them to make payments over time but getting two or more tickets often leads to problems.

    Another facet was the amount assessed against the the defendants has risen higher and higher. In 1984 the standard fine for a traffic infraction was $37.00 in WA and the largest fine to my knowledge (thought it has been some time) was $313.00 for wrong way on a freeway and for 35mph+ over the limit where the speed limit was under 40 mph. When I left the force in 2012 the standard fine was $124.00 and the two highest fines were ~$1026.00 or so for Discarding Lighted Material or for Failure to Yield to Emergency Vehicle. On top of all that the traffic citation paperwork changed from allowing only two violations per citation to three, making it a bit less disuasive for the LEO to have to scratch out a new form just to write a third violation down. Then the e-ticket system came out and adding another violatoin was just a few clicks to do.

    The real one-two punch came with the unlicensed driver. It is almost always the case where a person without a driver license does not have proof of insurance. So a person who has ID but not a license could $500+ dollar fine for that, plus a $500+ fine for driving without insurance plus a speeding ticket for $175.00. I had a friend of mine who wrote a driver a $2,200+ ticket based upon his violations. Sometimes you had to wonder how in several cases a criminal traffic violation had a penalty less than an infraction does but there were a lot of strange issue in the law sometimes.

  13. Darren,

    It’s kinda crazy, how they think…. The one that gets me is the failure to support statute…. After someone creates an arrears…. Not only are they held in civil contempt and incarcerated….. For not complying with the judgment,….. But they then go after these same folks as a felony matter….. For the same offense that they have already been held in civil contempt…..

  14. davidm2575

    So in this case, the outrageous fees the government charges for infractions like this are really oppressive on the poor. I think the lawyers and politicians who create these laws make so much money and have so much free tax money available to do what they want that they have no idea how the laws they make oppress the poor. It has come to the place that we really need a percentage, a sliding scale so-to-speak, not just for taxes, but for the fines and penalties that they impose on people. The poor always get the short end of the stick.

    They are well aware of what it is doing to the poor. that was the purpose of writing them the way they did. just as the recession was deliberately put into place to break what was left of the middle of class. so now there are only 2 classes of people the rich and the poor. and they are determined to keep it that way. as they see it. we are here to serve them. and we are going to do it whether we want to or not. thats why they no longer give you the manufacturers deed to the car when you buy it. you only receive the title.

    @ Otteray i read a story back in january i believe about how the cops in some states,cities, and towns are deliberately setting people up so that they can forcibly hit them with the phony forfeiture charges. the story came out because the cops ran up on that one person who knows their rights and the law and blew it out of the water when the guy got thru the mayor,da and half the police dept were gone..

  15. If the Truth be known – only commercial drivers are required to be licensed. Look it up. When you pay to register your vehicle, read your paper work also – it states that you must carry the registration in your vehicle if you are driving commercial. Look it up. Don’t complain, do something.

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