Driver’s License Suspensions and The Poverty Spiral

We live in a car-based society. In order to get to work, get to the store, and do the things necessary to carry out our lives we need to drive. Public transportation exists, but is practical for very few people even in urban areas. But keep in mind that in Florida, as necessary as it may be, driving isn’t considered a right – it’s technically a privilege. And failing to pay court fines or child support can result in that privilege being taken away. 

People fail to pay court fines or child support for many reasons, but primarily it’s not because they simply don’t want to pay. People lose their jobs. They get sick and can’t work. Most people who are facing court fines or child support payments don’t have secure jobs where they get paid vacation and sick leave. They work for an hourly wage, often the minimum wage. These same people depend on their driver’s license to let them drive to work, because that’s the only way they can pay off their fines and child support. They don’t have inherited money or rich uncles who can pay it off for them.

So let’s say a person gets a traffic fine. They lose their job or get sick, and don’t have enough money to pay it. Under the way the law works the state of Florida punishes them by taking away their driver’s license – which takes their ability to get back to work or get another job and get back on their way to paying off their fine. But they have to get to work or find another job. So they drive anyway.

They get pulled over while driving. Because their license is suspended they get charged with a crime: “Driving While License is Suspended or Revoked.” If the driver didn’t know about the suspension it’s a moving violation, like another traffic ticket. If they did know about it, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor and punishable by another fine (surprise surprise) and even jail time.

But they still have to get to work. After all, they now have two fines to pay off before they can get their license back. So they keep driving. And, as you may have guessed, they get pulled over again. This time there’s no question that they knew about their license suspension, so they are automatically charged with a crime. A second offense is a first-degree misdemeanor. A third offense is a felony. You can see where this is going.

This is becoming a big problem. In Miami-Dade County alone 29% (that’s about 550,000 people) have suspended licenses. From the same article:

The failure to pay fees accounted for 77 percent of all license suspensions in Florida between 2012 and 2015, according to an analysis of DHSMV data.

Yes – people’s licenses get suspended if they’re convicted of DUI, reckless driving, or a criminal racing charge. But 77% of license suspensions aren’t for those things – they’re for failing to pay court fines or fees.

These cases clog the court system and the public defender’s office. The driver also has to show up to court every month and sit through an hours-long docket sounding instead of working or looking for work.

This system has created a self-perpetuating cycle of fines and criminal charges. Fortunately one Florida lawmaker is seeing this problem clearly, and hopefully he’s successful. But in the meantime Florida’s working poor will continue to suffer.