In most states, including Wisconsin, judges can suspend or revoke your driver’s license if you fail to pay a fine. That can be somewhat counterproductive, as well as costly to the courts. Many people aren’t able to earn a living without driving, so suspending their licenses makes it a great deal harder to pay the fine. Continued nonpayment can lead to a vicious debt cycle and thus longer term involvement with the courts than would otherwise be necessary.
In Wisconsin, one can ask judges to consider the defendant’s ability to pay, although low-income defendants are still expected to pay in installments. Unfortunately, defendants have to proactively notify the court of their inability to pay in order to get the installment plan. And, failure to pay can lead to imprisonment for contempt of court.
A new report by the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center calls these policies “license for payment.” It concludes that they are not only counterproductive and costly but also unconstitutional. The Department of Justice has said that such a policy deprives indigent defendants of their “due process right to establish inability to pay.”
Moreover, such policies tend to result in enforcement disparities that negatively affect historically vulnerable groups. Not only have studies found that African-Americans disproportionately suffer from license suspensions for nonpayment of fines, but the data also shows they are disproportionately likely to be convicted of driving on a suspended license after nonpayment-related suspensions.
According to the report, 43 states and the District of Columbia have some form of license-for-payment policy. In 19, license suspension is mandatory after nonpayment. Most do not require judges to consider inability to pay, and in most states people who truly can’t afford to pay are treated no differently from those who willfully refuse to do so. In most states, the license is suspended indefinitely until the obligation is met.
In Wisconsin, there is some consideration of inability to pay, but it is limited. The license suspension is at the court’s discretion and is for a limited period. Still, many people who simply can’t afford their fines are given no chance to meet their debt to society in another way, such as through community service. Moreover, they are at risk of incarceration if they miss an installment payment.
The Justice Center argues that the main motivation for these policies is money. “We have to stop using our courts as revenue centers,” the report’s co-author said. “Funding the courts based on amounts they collect from individuals who come before them runs contrary to basic notions of justice and fairness.”
Do you think these laws need to change? Federal or appellate state courts may soon be deciding lawsuits which argue the policies are unconstitutional and millions of dollars may be awarded in class actions. Legislators in your community need to hear your opinion about whether these policies should be changed before courts begin imposing massive monetary penalties on taxpayers.