Sens. Coons, Wicker Re-Introduce The Driving for Opportunity Act
WASHINGTON – On Marh 25th 2021, U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) reintroduced the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act to create incentives to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions.
It has been estimated that nationwide at least 11 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees, not for any public safety reasons. This makes it harder for Americans to go to work to pay off their debts and places an unnecessary burden on police to enforce suspensions, expending resources that should go to public safety, increasing hostilities in the communities they serve, and putting officers and citizens at increased risk of infection during a pandemic.
The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.).
“Driver’s licenses enable millions of Americans to travel to and from work, their children’s schools, doctor’s appointments, and places of worship,” Senator Coons said. “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for Americans to pay their bills and care for their families, taking away someone’s driver’s license can make it nearly impossible to hold down a job and therefore pay back their debts. The Driving for Opportunity Act would end this practice that traps our most vulnerable populations in a cycle of debt while lifting an unnecessary and counterproductive responsibility from our police departments at a time when they are already carrying too heavy a burden.”
“Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees is counterproductive,” Senator Wicker said. “Americans need access to vehicles to work and to care for their families. My home state of Mississippi rightly banned this practice in 2018. This legislation would encourage other states to follow our lead.”
“Taking away someone’s driver’s license due to unpaid debts – especially during the pandemic – is unnecessary and hurts that person’s chance of actually repaying the debt that they owe. This commonsense and bipartisan bill is supported by law enforcement because it lets people drive safely to work, without fear of arrest, so they can pay off what they owe and support their family’s needs,” Senator Durbin said.
“If the government wants people to pay fines, then the government shouldn’t prevent them from getting to work. Our bill resets the incentives to stop the circular problem of states suspending licenses for anyone who owes fines or fees. This is especially important in rural states where travel by car is even more necessary,” Senator Grassley said.
“For many Americans, being able to drive is essential for getting to work, bringing their kids to child care, or getting to the grocery store. That’s why suspending someone’s driver’s license for unrelated unpaid fees is deeply misguided. It is a penalty that criminalizes poverty and strips individuals of their means to access their livelihoods, creating a vicious downwards cycle. This legislation will help us eliminate these harmful laws,” said Senator Van Hollen.
“For most Arkansans, driving a vehicle is the only realistic way to get around and conduct daily business like getting to work, school and the grocery store,” said Senator Boozman. “Penalizing drivers who are unable to pay unrelated fees by dramatically hampering their ability to travel prevents them from participating in these basic activities in addition to making it more difficult to afford these fines. I’m pleased to join my colleagues in supporting this bill to end this counterproductive policy.”
“This bill would protect vulnerable Americans from losing their driver’s license—an every day necessity—simply because they owe unpaid fines or fees. Without a license, people can’t get to work—and pay what’s owed—not to mention get kids to school, or get needed health care, and much more. Suspending driver’s licenses for offenses that have nothing to do with public safety, like missed child support payments or unpaid court fines, is counterproductive and traps the poorest Americans in a cycle of debt,” said Senator Blumenthal. “This issue disproportionately affects communities of color and can significantly strain relationships with law enforcement. I’m glad to join a bipartisan group of colleagues to right this wrong.”
“Suspending a person’s driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees, and for no public safety reason, is the wrong way to go. Instead, it makes it even more difficult for folks to keep a job and pay down debts. This bipartisan effort will help end this penalty,” said Senator Ernst.
“Suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees is nonsensical and completely counterintuitive, actually making it harder for people to pay off their debts. If they can’t drive to work, they can’t pay their bills. They also can’t drive their kids to school or child care, essential to allowing working parents to do their jobs,” Senator Wyden said. “Congress must act to end this unfair practice of trapping vulnerable people in a cycle of debt.”
The Driving for Opportunity Act is supported by a broad coalition of groups spanning the political spectrum, including civil rights and civil liberties advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense lawyers. These groups include the Fines and Fees Justice Center, ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National District Attorneys Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Civil Rights Corps, Due Process Institute, Fair & Just Prosecution, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Vision Zero Network, SPLC Action, The Libre Initiative, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Digital Library.
“License suspensions for debt are trapping millions of Americans in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, National Policy and Campaigns Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Elected officials from across the political spectrum are increasingly realizing that ending debt-based license suspensions is a win-win situation both for their most vulnerable residents and for their state’s overall economy.”
“No one should be denied the privilege of driving a car because of an unpaid fine or fee. Denying a person a driver’s license because they owe money creates a modern version of the debtors prison – you cannot leave your house until you pay your debts, but you cannot pay your debt if you cannot go to work. This is wrong,” said Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Suspending drivers’ licenses for non-public safety reasons such as unpaid fines and fees creates unnecessary hardships for those with limited means and is counter-intuitive to its intended goal. A driver’s license could be the difference between maintaining a job or falling deeper into financial trouble, thereby making it more difficult to pay the court obligations in the first place. This bill will help states move towards a better system where drivers’ licenses are suspended only when they have a substantial nexus to public safety, rather than as a misguided stick,” said Mark Holden, Board Member of Americans for Prosperity.
“NDAA is proud to join our partners in the law enforcement and criminal justice reform community to rally behind the Driving for Opportunity Act. This vital legislation works to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for fines and fees, while reinvesting funding to assist communities in implementing this new policy. The bill strikes the right balance by allowing suspensions for public safety reasons while ending the practice of criminalizing poverty,” said Nelson Bunn, Executive Director of the National District Attorneys Association.
“Suspending licenses limits people’s ability to access work, groceries, education and health care services but it does not increase safety, and AASHTO and state DOTs believe our focus should always be on safety. We very much appreciate the leadership of Senators Coons and Wicker to improve access to opportunities,” said Jim Tymon, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
“Across the country, millions of people have their driver’s licenses suspended for reasons that are unrelated to highway or public safety, usually unpaid fines and fees,” said Patrick Yoes, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Forcing officers to arrest a person for driving with a suspended license due to unpaid fees is a waste of valuable law enforcement time and resources. This bill will help those in difficult circumstances and free law enforcement to focus on protecting our communities.”
“By encouraging states to eliminate drivers’ license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, the Driving for Opportunity Act will help ensure law enforcement’s resources are focused on preventing dangerous behavior behind the wheel that is a threat to public safety. The MCCA thanks Sen. Coons and Sen. Wicker for their continued leadership on this issue,” said Chief Art Acevedo, Chief of the Houston Police Department and President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“This legislation is a critical step toward ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions, one of many abusive fines and fees collection practices. Government reliance on fines and fees for revenue creates perverse incentives for courts and law enforcement to extract wealth from low-income black and brown communities that already experience racial profiling and excessive policing. We must end the predatory imposition and enforcement of fines and fees,” said Emily Dindial, Advocacy and Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
A coalition letter in support of the bill is available here.
The one pager on the bill is available here.
The bill text is available here.
Research increasingly shows that suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees negatively impacts families, communities, and law enforcement:
- It leads to increased unemployment and underemployment. According to a report by the Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force in New Jersey, 42% of those who lost their licenses due to certain non-driving-related offenses lost their jobs as a result, and 45% of those who lost their jobs were unable to find new employment. 88% of those who were able to find another job reported a decrease in income. A Harvard Law School report called the suspension of driver’s licenses “one of the most pervasive poverty traps for poor people assessed a fine that they cannot afford to pay.”
- It puts people at risk without benefit to public safety. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 75% of suspended drivers continue to drive, facing further fines, fees, and incarceration if they get pulled over. Police officers will then be required to make traffic stops as debt collectors, and unnecessary traffic stops can be unsafe, particularly during a pandemic.
- It does not help collections. A report by the San Francisco City Treasurer found that ending debt-based license suspensions in the city had “no negative impact on collections.” A report by Texas Appleseed noted that although Dallas suspends licenses for unpaid fines and fees and Fort Worth does not, Fort Worth had slightly higher collections than Dallas did.
- It takes up law enforcement officers’ valuable time. In 2015, Washington State calculated that state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with suspensions for non-driving offenses. Arresting one person for driving with a suspended license can take nine hours of an officer’s time when considering all the paperwork required.
- It disproportionately harms rural communities and minorities. Only 11% of rural residents have access to public transportation services. Studies show that Black and Latino people are more likely to be the subject of traffic enforcement and have their license suspended, despite comparable traffic violation rates.