people in car banner image

Restoring driver’s licenses for debt-related suspensions

December 14, 2022

By Dimarie Alicea-Lozada

Recently the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) looked at the topic of fines and fees and how courts are dealing with legal financial obligations (LFOs). For people who have LFOs, negative consequences can compound when they are unable to pay and/or are fearful of appearing in court. As of Fall 2017 “43 states and District of Columbia used driver’s license suspension to coerce payment of government debts arising out of traffic or criminal convictions.”

Having a suspended license for failure to pay fees and fines places individuals in a precarious position of being unable to drive to work to make the money necessary to pay the fees/fines. Driving with a suspended license can result in their arrest, adding to the fees and fines. In a 2019 article examining this issue in Judicature, state chief justices and state court administrators urged reforms in this area. The harsh consequences of not being able to afford fines and fees exacerbate problems for the indigent and minorities.

Since then, some states have started addressing this problem. In 2021 Michigan passed a law that bans the suspension of a driver’s license for a reason not related to a traffic violation. This law is part of the effort of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. NCSC recently held a webinar on how the Michigan Task Force implemented new pretrial practices and procedures that limit the court’s ability to suspend driver’s licenses. The practices included notification to individuals of court dates to lower failure to appear (FTA) rates.

Also in 2021 Arizona passed a law to end the suspension of a driver’s license due to inability to pay a court fee or because of an FTA. The law is retroactive and covers those who have had their licenses suspended to have them reinstated.

Santa Fe New Mexico’s City Council in July 2022 approved an ordinance to limit the debt-related suspension of a driver’s license when individuals show they cannot pay a fine or a fee.

The North Carolina Justice Center started working with advocacy groups to limit the North Carolina driver’s suspension law and is educating people on how to eliminate traffic-related debt. The District Attorney assists people with motions to the courts.

Is your state considering restoring driver’s licenses to those who lost them due to their inability to pay? Share your experiences with us. For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.