MIAMI — The American Civil Liberties Union released a new report today titled “Reckless Lawmaking” which highlights the ways that police enforcement and driver’s license suspensions compound police brutality, poverty, and mass incarceration. This report comes in the wake of the recent murder of Daunte Wright and speaks to how these policies made possible the traffic stop that resulted in his death. Wright had expired license plates, so police justified stopping him when a run of these plates showed an open warrant against Wright for missing court dates about unpaid fines.
Every year, there are over 30 million cases related to misdemeanors, violations, and minor infractions punishable by fines and fees — any one of which gives police a pretextual basis to stop drivers, just as they stopped Wright. The policies recommended in this report provide a road map to remove justifications for police contact as policymakers and city council members across the country reckon with the murder of yet another Black man by police. The report also makes recommendations for lawmakers to more accurately consider the value of continuing to fund government services through predatory fines and fees in the light of the consequent harms to impacted individuals.
We analyzed the laws and policies from all 50 states and D.C. and gathered testimony from semi-structured interviews with 16 individuals who had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines or fees, or failure to appear in court related to these debts. Our findings are shocking:
- Currently, Florida is one of 37 states (including D.C.) that continues the practice of debt-based driver’s license suspensions.
- Suspensions are counterproductive for compliance purposes. The majority of interviewees did not pay fines and fees because they could not afford to, a difficulty that increased insurance premiums, impound fees, alternative transportation costs, and continually accruing fees. Interviewees received a range from $170 to $8,200 in added fees on top of their original citations.
- Almost half of those interviewed were arrested at least once for their inability to pay fines and fees or their failure to appear in court for outstanding debt, some multiple times. Others who were arrested for driving with a suspended license (sometimes unknowingly) spent time in jail or on probation.
- Nearly every interviewee specified that their license suspension resulted in them losing their job, being forced to take time off from work, or being restricted in their ability to find new work.
- Police enforcement of unpaid fines and fees makes the streets more dangerous than not: These fines justify emotionally and physically traumatic pretextual policing and serve no reportable safety benefits.
- Police stop people and issue fines for minor infractions such as tinted windows, expired registrations, and lack of insurance. When pretextual policing doesn’t result in death or police brutality, it traps people in a cycle of poverty and criminalization where unpaid fines can justify police stops, police stops can result in even more fines, and debt-based driver’s license suspensions can make commuting to work difficult or impossible.
“Government reliance on fines and fees for revenue incentivizes wealth extraction through over-criminalization and over-policing. Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are one of many ways that courts and law enforcement officers shake people down under the guise of the law,” said Emily Dindial, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel.
“Since I couldn’t drive to work, I lost my job,” said Dario, who saw a $250 charge for “driving with tinted windows” turn into a total debt of $1,032.16.