Suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay tickets or fines is a growing problem in Wisconsin, and other states.
It is a doom loop that both undercuts legitimate law enforcement and promotes a cycle of poverty.
That’s the suggestion, at least, from the Feb. 4 Journal Times report that delved into the problem of rising suspensions in the state, to the point that nearly 60 percent of license suspensions in Wisconsin are due to failure to pay fines — as opposed to all other reasons, such as drunken driving convictions or accumulating too many demerits for moving violations.
A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute in a 2013 study found that 250,000 driver suspensions were issued for failure to pay fines, while 170,000 suspensions were issued for all other reasons.
That’s a disturbing figure. It’s one that weighs heaviest on people in lower-income groups, creating a modern-day debtor’s prison.
As Susan Lund, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, put it: “The person can’t pay the ticket, which causes their driver’s license to be suspended. Then that person may lose their job, or lose out on a job opportunity, because they don’t have a valid driver’s license or a legal way to get to work. This clearly makes them even less likely to be able to pay the ticket, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.”
What it also does is give the low-income driver a Hobson’s choice: Drive and risk getting an unaffordable ticket for driving after suspension, or don’t drive and lose his or her job. We know what choice is made, and that means more people will drive with suspended licenses, which diminishes the enforcement against dangerous drivers because license suspensions are treated less seriously.
That, in turn, tends to undercut traffic law enforcement in other areas as well.
To be clear, we believe drivers should pay their tickets and fines. And, yes, the prospect of paying a speeding ticket of a hundred — or several hundred — dollars is probably a good incentive for safe driving for those who can’t afford the luxury of that outlay if it threatens to take food off the table or pay the rent. But as The Journal Times report noted, 200,000 drivers in Tennessee and Michigan had their licenses reinstated in 2017 and 2018 when federal courts concluded that it was unconstitutional to force a low-income individual to pay a debt to the government, especially since revoking someone’s license can impugn someone’s ability to make money that could be used to pay off that fine.
In the Tennessee case the U.S. District Court judge wrote: “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.”
Alternative solutions to failure-to-pay suspensions are needed at the state level, as the Racine City Council urged in an advisory resolution.
That could take the tack, as the City of Green Bay did last year, of garnishing tax returns for those who failed to pay tickets. Green Bay took that approach because it was dealing with $830,000 in unpaid parking tickets.
There are solutions and alternatives that can be found. But as it stands now, the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines has become an unwieldy hammer that isn’t getting the job done: It is both weighing heavily on low-income drivers and undercutting effective law enforcement.