Report: Millions lose driver’s licenses due to unpaid court debt

WASHINGTON — Drivers nationwide who accumulate court debt as a result of traffic citations or criminal charges have been losing their driver’s licenses by the millions, and a Virginia advocacy group claims the situation is having a disproportionately negative impact on poor people.

According to a report released this week by the Legal Aid Justice Center, millions have seen their licenses suspended as a penalty for being unable to pay court costs and fines.

“Most state statutes contain no safeguards to distinguish between people who intentionally refuse to pay and those who default due to poverty,” the report said.

Across five states, including Virginia, more than 4 million drivers have seen their licenses suspended over unpaid court debt, the group said.  In Virginia alone, the number is nearly a million.

Other states reviewed in the group’s study were Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan.

“A wealthier driver can go through court, write a check and be back on the road,” said Mario Salas, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “A low-income driver might have a really hard time paying off those court costs and fines.”

According to the report, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and 41 other states routinely suspend licenses as a penalty for not paying court debt.

Also, in 19 states, an unpaid court debt leads to a mandatory suspension. Virginia is on that list, while Maryland and D.C. have discretion over when a license should be pulled.

“Virtually all states that suspend for unpaid court debt do so indefinitely, with rules that prevent reinstatement until payment is satisfied,” the report stated.

Court debt can be accumulated over something as simple as a traffic violation, and the group claims poor people are unfairly affected because once they lose their license, it can be difficult for them to get to and from work.

The group, which says it fights against poverty and injustice, has offices in Charlottesville, Falls Church, Petersburg and Richmond.

It filed a federal lawsuit last year against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, claiming the state’s practice of suspending licenses is unconstitutional. A judge dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, but the group is in the process of appealing.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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