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Should people lose their driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt?

by | Oct 13, 2017 | Criminal Defense

According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, 43 states and the District of Columbia have policies allowing or requiring courts to suspend the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay fines. In all but four states, this can be done with no consideration of whether the person has willfully refused to pay or simply doesn’t have the ability to pay the fine. Pennsylvania is among the states that have one of these “license-for-payment” policies.

These policies punish many people who rely on their vehicles to work by taking away those vehicles. Without the ability to drive legally, many people lose the ability to pay the fines in question.

The nonprofit recently released a report concluding, with support from the Department of Justice, that these policies unconstitutionally punish people for their poverty. The report also concludes that the policies are unfair, costly to the community, and counter-productive.

“Most state statutes contain no safeguards to distinguish between people who intentionally refuse to pay and those who default due to poverty, punishing both groups equally harshly as if they were equally blameworthy,” reads the executive summary of the report.

What is Pennsylvania’s policy on license suspension for nonpayment?

Pennsylvania law requires judges to indefinitely suspend a person’s driver’s license for failure to respond to any citation or summons, or for nonpayment of fines, court costs, or restitution after a violation of any motor vehicle statute except parking. It also requires indefinite suspension for failure to respond to citations or summonses or for nonpayment in regards to other states’ motor vehicle codes, not including parking laws.

These suspensions are mandatory and remain in place until the court is given proof of full payment. No consideration is given for whether the nonpayment is willful or due to inability to pay.

According to the Justice Center’s analysis, this is unconstitutional in that it selectively punishes the poor. It also creates a counter-productive cycle of debt from which many low-income people cannot escape. This leads to prolonged involvement in the court system, which is more costly for the court and community.

The Department of Justice, in a statement of interest in a lawsuit against Virginia’s “license-for-payment” policy, stated that drivers have a “due process right to establish inability to pay.” Virginia’s policy is essentially identical to Pennsylvania’s.

Do you think Pennsylvania needs to change its law?