by Timothy Sandefur

A federal lawsuit in North Carolina is challenging the state’s policy of automatically suspending driver licenses for people who fail to pay fines and court costs. Under current law, a person who fails to pay a traffic ticket will have his or her license automatically revoked 40 days after a judgment is issued, without a hearing.

That’s a harsh policy for people who often don’t have a lot of money and depend on their cars for a livelihood. When they lose their licenses, many of them will simply drive illegally, running the risk of being pulled over and being punished yet again. And those who follow the rules are deprived of transportation they need to get to work, the doctor, or other important appointments. The result is a kind of debtor’s prison: people are punished for failing to pay fines they couldn’t afford—and often the punishment deprives them of the means of paying off the debt. And while the financial consequences can be bad enough, there are often other problems that result—including the potential violence of traffic stops.

Proponents of the current system argue that it’s a necessary tool for ensuring that people pay their fines. But revoking a person’s ability to drive is an extreme measure that often doesn’t relate to the underlying crime. And it’s happening to more and more people. A recent Reason Foundation report found that in 2010 alone, Michigan suspended almost half a million licenses—more than 6 percent of the entire driving population. And virtually none of them were for driving-related offenses.

Although Arizona doesn’t automatically suspend licenses, license suspensions as a result of unpaid fines remain common. And a person who drives on a suspended license is liable to arrest. In fact, that is the most common criminal traffic violation in the state. As our Mark Flatten writes,

One person described being cited in Mayer, Arizona, for failing to have proof of insurance. The driver was insured, and mailed proof to the court, which claimed it did not receive it. So the person’s driver’s license was suspended for failure to appear or failure to pay. The first the driver learned of the license suspension was when he was later cited in Scottsdale for driving on a suspended license…. “After I went to the Mayer court they waived the fine and had the suspension lifted, but now I am facing two criminal driving on a suspended license for [failure to appear], plus had my truck impounded that cost $150,” the driver wrote. “I have no money for a[n] attorney or the hefty fine that is possible along with jail time. If I go to jail, I will lose my job. I can’t believe this all because I didn’t have my [insurance] card in the car that day.”

As part of our City Court Reform project, we’ve urged Arizona to revise its system to—among other things—give judges discretion to suspend licenses, only where public safety requires it. If a person can’t afford a fine—or simply fails to appear for a hearing—the consequences shouldn’t be as harsh as a license suspension. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip—but you can make life harder for people who already face severe disadvantages. Our legal system should instead be designed to ensure respect for the law without creating a permanent class of outlaws who find the doors closed to them.

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation and holds the Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.