Driver’s License Suspensions for Failure to Pay Fines Inflict Particular Harm on Black Drivers

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Yves here. Our society has so many Ferguson-level legal fine traps that by accident or design ensnare blacks and people of color disproportionately via biased policing intersecting with generally greater economic precarity.

By Sian Mughan, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, Arizona State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Imagine being unable to pay a US$50 traffic ticket and, as a result, facing mounting fees so high that even after paying hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars toward your debt you still owe money.

Imagine being fired from your job because you’ve been forced to use unreliable public transportation instead of your car.

And imagine going to jail several times because, even though your license is suspended, you had to drive to work.

These are some of the situations facing millions of Americanswho were unable to pay fines – and whose lives were turned into a nightmare by overly punitive policies in response.

Cycles of Debt

Most cities and states have policies that allow them to suspend a driver’s license for nonpayment of fines and fees, most commonly traffic fines.

These policies are so popular that judges have described them as “the most valuable tool available to the municipal courts for inducing payment on past due accounts.”

Studying the effects of these policies can be difficult because there is no uniform national reporting of crime statistics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that failure to pay fines – not dangerous driving – is the most common reason for driver’s license suspensions in the United States.

And research indicates that these burdens are primarily borne by low-income people and people of color.

As a public affairs scholar who has written extensively about labor markets and criminal justice systems, I’ve conducted research with Joanna Carroll supports these conclusions.

But it also illuminates a previously unknown racial inequality of the policy.

Our research suggests that, by appearing on the driver’s record, license suspensions increase the probability that Black – but not white – drivers incur more traffic tickets. Even after the debt is paid and the license regained, these suspensions continue to harm drivers, and these harms exclusively affect Black drivers.

This shows that suspensions don’t just trap people in a cycle of mounting debt but also a cycle of negative interactions with the criminal justice system.

Long-Term Impact of Suspensions

We studied a sample of over 2,000 drivers who received traffic tickets in Marion County, Indiana, home to Indianapolis, between 2011 and 2016.

In that county, if a driver fails to pay or contest a ticket within 72 days, their license is automatically suspended. This means that judges and other members of the justice system cannot choose who receives a suspension.

Every driver in our sample paid their ticket in the days surrounding the payment deadline.

This is an ideal environment to study the long-term impacts of suspensions because it creates two groups of people that are easily comparable: those who paid the ticket right before the deadline, thus avoiding a suspension, and those who paid after the deadline and received a suspension.

We found that Black drivers who received a failure-to-pay suspension increased their likelihood of getting another ticket by up to nine percentage points. White drivers, meanwhile, saw a roughly three percentage point decrease in their likelihood of getting another ticket.

We attempted to identify differences between white and Black drivers that might explain this result but were unable to do so. For example, Black drivers are not committing more offenses than white drivers, nor are the offenses they commit more serious. Black drivers are just as likely as white drivers to pay their tickets. And Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to reinstate their license after the suspension.

Moreover, regardless of race, following the suspension, drivers with larger fines are less likely to receive another ticket, suggesting that all drivers drive more cautiously after getting a suspension, likely to reduce the probability of receiving another ticket. This is consistent with previous studies on the effects of traffic policies, which show traffic enforcement leads to safer driving.

Ineffective Strategies for Black Drivers

We believe the most convincing explanation for our findings is that driving “better” to avoid being pulled over is an ineffective strategy for Black drivers, who are more likely to have an encounter with police regardless of how they drive.

This interpretation is consistent with studies showing Black people are more likely to be pulled over without cause. After pulling over a Black driver, the police officer discovers the prior failure-to-pay suspension and becomes more likely to issue a ticket.

This sequence of events does not occur when the driver is white because white drivers are able to minimize the chance of being pulled over by changing their driving behavior.

Our research is the first to study failure-to-pay suspensions in the United States, and it’s the first to demonstrate that they exert disproportionate harm on Black drivers.

This evidence could prove relevant to policymakers in states across the county who are currently debating discontinuing license suspension for nonpayment of legal debts.

Dr. Joanna Carroll co-authored this research while she was at Indiana University. She currently works at the Government Accountability Office.

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  1. Bob

    “And research indicates that these burdens are primarily borne by low-income people and people of color.”

    This strikes at the heart of the inscription often found on public buildings (including court houses). The inscription that claims to offer “Equal Justice for All”.

    The system deliberately focuses of folks who can’t afford a lawyer, folks who are very much at the mercy
    (whim) of law enforcement, by district attorneys who somehow fail to follow Brady and get away with it, by judges grown tired of the endless stream of folks who by chance or by the color of their skin live on the margins of our society. The upside for the system is a stream of revenue and an endless supply of cheap labor since after all these criminals don’t deserve a real wage.

    The down side is that folks are cast into a system that leaves little or no way out.

    If anyone wishes to further their education – go to the lowest of criminal courts to see how the system works. There are instances where the judge remands the prisoner to more jail time because he or she lacks sums as little as $ 25
    . And the judge has the gall to ask if a close relative can pay the fine. In effect punishing the relative who may or may not have a criminal bone in their body and certainly has nothing to do with the crime before the court.

  2. Even keel

    I can’t believe this (family blogging) nonsense. Locutions like “increased likelihood of up to 9%” mean nothing to me. It implies that different individuals in their data set (or perhaps subgroups?) has different “likelihood” increases. Of course, absent a crystal ball you cannot directly measure likelihood, so they had to have a proxy. What was it? What proxy gives rise to differential likelihood’s within the study group?

    I can’t begin to imagine what actual data set they had that would translate into this phrase.

    Is it just poor writing? Or is it an example of people trying to chase grant money by writing what works? Are they hiding the science because they think we are dumb? Or is it for a political purpose?

    The introductory use of extreme cases to set a “baseline” expectation of what normalcy is leads me to believe the article is written for a political purpose.

    Sorry if I offend. I don’t want to. I just get frustrated sometimes because we can’t discuss these things, so I use extreme language. I would happily listen to rational explanations here.

    1. French75

      Apologies if this is a double-post, I didn’t nest the first one underneath

      We found that Black drivers who received a failure-to-pay suspension increased their likelihood of getting another ticket by up to nine percentage points.

      Two groups: (Black, On Time Payment) and (Black, Late Payment). The rate of a subsequent ticket in the (Black, Late Payment) group is higher. The phrase “up to nine percentage points” does suggest a bit of statistical malpractice – is that the upper-bound of a confidence interval? If so might the lower bound be negative?

      White drivers, meanwhile, saw a roughly three percentage point decrease in their likelihood of getting another ticket.

      Again two groups: (White, On Time Payment) and (White, Late Payment); in this case the rate of a subsequent ticket is lower in the (White, Late Payment) group by 3%. Again, a good question is are these differences even significant?

      Finally a related comment:

      following the suspension, drivers with larger fines are less likely to receive another ticket, suggesting that all drivers drive more cautiously after getting a suspension

      So they know that the size of the fine has an effect on subsequent caution. Boy I hope they controlled for this when comparing between the two cohorts — or else it could simply be that the White cohort had a higher proportion of large fines.

      I’m particularly worried that the “We studied a sample of over 2,000 drivers” doesn’t actually link to a published study. Did this study pass peer review? Where is it?

      1. cocomaan

        Study is here behind a paywall: Was linked a little further up.

        I was also wondering about the sample of 2000 drivers. It looks like they have some kind of state dataset. Here’s the abstract:

        This article studies the unintended consequences of failure-to-pay (FTP) drivers’ license suspensions. Unlike other traffic enforcement papers that focus on the public benefit to increases in enforcement, we focus on the private returns. Drawing on a unique administrative data set and institutional features that result in as-good-as random assignment of FTP suspension, we estimate the effect of these suspensions on the probability a driver receives additional tickets. We find that financial penalties and FTP suspensions reduce the probability of reoffense for White drivers. However, among Black drivers, financial penalties have no effect and FTP suspension increases the probability of reoffense by 6-9 percentage points. A series of additional analyses fail to produce evidence of racial differences in drivers’ responses to FTP suspension, leading us to conclude that following suspension drivers make behavioral adjustments to minimize the probability of future tickets. However, these behavioral adjustments are only effective for White drivers.

        1. Even keel

          Thanks for this!

          How about a comparison to control? If they postulate that white drivers and black drivers are different, then would they need to establish a baseline for the comparison (before and after the “treatment”?). What is the baseline “probability of offense” and does it differ between their sets?

  3. Glossolalia

    I’m guessing too that as an added bonus for the GOP they can then turn you away from the polling station because even though you have ID its suspended?

  4. Eye 65

    This is outrageous, especially since Marion County voted Biden 2 to 1 over Trump in 2020. Perhaps this is merely discriminatory against poor people to benefit the entrenched local government bureaucracy. Follow the money…to the government pension plans.

    Besides Marion County, the Indiana counties containing Notre Dame, Purdue (Lafayette and NW in Lake) and IU Bloomington are all deep blue, if you are scoring at home.

    1. PKMKII

      I’d be really curious to see what the ratio is in Marion for local government revenues from fines like this as compared to revenues from property taxes. These things always stink of a way to keep taxes from going up while covering from increased spending, shift fund sources to ones that are more obfuscated.

  5. Mark Gisleson

    Obama did something after getting elected that allowed states to share this data and prohibit drivers from renewing their licenses (driving and license plates). I went to renew my license in Minnesota and couldn’t because of an unpaid speeding ticket in Iowa TWENTY years before.

    The Minnesota folks were sympathetic and explained to me how this was all on Obama (I think it was simply a directive of some sort to thes states and nothing that had passed through Congress).

    After being laid off from a good factory job in 1981 until starting up a resume service in 1990, the worst ongoing economic crisis I experienced was parking tickets. In Des Moines I was arrested for three unpaid parking tickets (I moved a lot and never got any notifications and because I got the tickets while working on political campaigns, I foolishly thought they’d just go away).

    Meanwhile the swells who commute from the ‘burbs to their high paying jobs downtown park in ramps (monthly fees that aren’t exorbitant compared to the one or two hour rates for schlubs who couldn’t find a meter).

    This is not a new thing, just SOP for how municipalities grind down the poors.

  6. Rod

    In SC nowadays, you do not get a DL without proving you have Liability Insurance(if you need the DL for just employment driving a Company vehicle–the Employer must furnish that you will be covered under their Policy before DMV will allow you to get that DL). No Proof of Insurance and you get the State ID.
    Lots of ugly and irresponsible reasons for why that now is the Law–and Race was not the prime motivator there–imo. All SC DL holders must carry UnInsured Motorist Coverage as part of our Insurance Policy (whether bare minimumLiability Only to Comprehensive Coverage). Which implies much.
    And having Insurance to drive is a big co$t barrier.
    You could drive your car if someone else is insuring it, or you could drive their car if they have listed you as another Driver of their car (an added expense to add you)
    Drop your Insurance(by failing to pay the bill) and the Insurance carrier is required –by Law–to notify DMV. DMV doesn’t want you to drive w/o Insurance, so you are required to show proof of Insurance Reinstatement or to remit your DL for a State ID or turn in your License Plates–if you do not your License Plate Is Suspended by DMV and you are sent another letter, and notification of the Fine(up to 400$) and directed again to remit your License Plate.

    Knowing the Law governing the Priveledge of Driving is tough, as is following the Law–kinda tough.
    Disregard for both are very commonplace where I live, if you read the Newspaper past the headlines to the list of charges many arrested have accumulated.

    In my past when my hair was a little curlier, I had Black friends and Aquantices with whom I have riden with who were openly candid about:
    Driving with No License at all
    Driving with a ‘misplaced’ License
    Driving with Suspended License
    Driving their car with out of date License Plates
    Driving their car with Cardboard ‘Lost Tag’ License Plates
    Driving their car using a common ‘Family Tag’ that was shared amongst Family Members
    Driving a Family members car without that Family members knowledge and permission
    Driving under pending Traffic Violations because of some of the above
    and of course, Driving without any Insurance.
    Sometimes in the presence of Drugs and Alcohal
    My White friends and acquantices–not so much–at all. So much so I began to wonder of it as possibly a Cultural Thing. The years have proven that is not so–but it is a complicated thing.

    enough that now I do ask embarassing questions before getting into the passengers seat.

    I am a cautious older white man now–with some Time in Service Authority and F*+k the Pigs Issues of my own.
    I have been Stopped a time or two
    I have been invited out of the Vehicle and been removed from my Vehicle
    I have assumed the Spread Eagle Position, or been placed in the Spread Eagle
    I have seen the Hand on the Weapon as well as the Hand Holding the Weapon pointed at me
    I have been cuffed roadside as well as uncuffed roadside
    I have been taken to Jail and Booked into that Jail
    I have waited for Bail and I have argued my case in front of a Magistrate
    all for the Minor Traffic Violations this Articles Authors examined.

    Growing up Rural, driving was essential to getting anywhere–to the store or in Life.

    Being casual about all that was required for that essential priveledge brought me the Hassles I listed.
    When I started Respecting what the Law required for the ‘Priveledge of Driving’ my costs went up but my Hassles went way down.

    It’s correlated in my mind–something I have tried to share with the younger generations coming along.

    I may not be an Angel behind the wheel of my vehicle BUT I am Legit to the Max on the outside of my Vehicle.
    And Geico doesn’t think I’m a bad driver after much more than a Million Miles driven.

  7. Felix_47

    This article is interesting but tickets are a pretty small thing. The giant thing is child support. Most Black men who have a child support order (only 1/4 of childen in single parent households have one so are ordered to pay between 130 and 310 with the average paid being about 117 per month in Mississippi for example. Even this is hard to pay and 82% of the fathers in this survey had had their dirver’s license taken for a median duration of two years. And, of course, not paying child support puts a lot of Black men in jail. The cost of collection, enforcement, jail, license suspension is immense to the state and far in excess of the pittance that Black men have to pay and do pay.


    I live in a Central Florida city near Orlando. Our local police chief is African-American, very professional and accessible. Because of a traffic incident involving a neighbor recently, when I saw our PD chief at a city council meeting last month I asked him about the department’s traffic enforcement protocols. He said his vehicle patrol officers routinely run numerous license checks on vehicles during their shifts, most often at stoplights. They’ll run 2 or 3 license plate checks on vehicles around them (when they can see the plates). He also said the patrol officers have lists of license plates belonging to drivers who have unpaid fines or other pending unresolved traffic or criminal court issues. In many cases there are outstanding bench warrants so they’re required by statute tostop any vehicle with a license plate red-flagged by the courts. He said many of the drivers that get pulled over as a result of these random checks tend to be repeat offenders. He doesn’t have any statistical base to determine whether more POC’s (African Americans, Hispanics) are pulled over than whites because they don’t compile the data by race (‘we look at plate numbers, not skin color,’ he said), but he did say the city PD’s records show an “apparent pattern” of repeat offenders of all races, with a common denominator being past DUI and substance abuse while driving stops/arrests, and economic stress that complicates speedy court resolution of these issues.

  9. Maritimer

    The fine/penalty should not only fit the offence/crime but also the pocketbook/income level. It does sometimes in Finland:

    This should be so, so obvious in our Injustice system. Just another example of a Tiered System.

    By anecdote, I had a lawyer once who would park his expensive, upscale vehicle illegally directly in front of the Courthouse. The ticket, of course, was just a business expense. The taxing racket being another glaring example of our Injustice System.

  10. David in Santa Cruz

    Terrific article and comments. I was a prosecutor during four decades in a well-known large jurisdiction, and FTP drivers license suspensions were long a significant “tax on being poor” that turned the system against the people and the people against the system.

    We eventually got a “progressive” new DA (who, although I was tagged as an old-timer, I quite liked). He decided that these “soft” suspensions were unfairly biased against poor people — and thus people of color, who happen to be over-represented among the poor (although our jurisdiction does not have many Black citizens, there is a large hispanic community). I helped to craft policies to help these folks get back their licenses and basic insurance by waiving fines and jail time and offering charge reductions — all within the statutory scheme but previously not utilized because it was easy to look “tough” punching down on the poor.

    Overnight the Superior Court’s finances collapsed and the judges had to beg the state for aid paying for their spanking new Italian marble-clad courthouse.

    There’s a lesson there about how elites benefit from the suffering of the poor…

  11. Eric Dynamic

    The system feeds on those least able to pay. This has long been documented and discussed. The targets of course, deserve no quarter. If we destroy your life to punish you for failing to pay a minor fine, take that as a “lesson” to “obey”. {laughs:} “The law.”

    Meanwhile, the traffic court for the city of Oakland, California suspended my license for nonpayment, but worse, tacked on “failure to appear” charges. I had twice turned right on red, and then run that light while red, at the intersection of Northgate and 27th, which if you look it up is the single largest source of ticket revenue. The intersection uses cameras. When I ran the red light, I expected to get a ticket but never did. They never informed me of any of the three infractions, and are yet holding me accountable for failing to appear.

    THey had a “appeal form” to request the nonappearance form be waived, but it was for window dressing to pretend fairness; but of course it was garbage, no serial number, no evident process, and I assume they are universally denied.

    In this case, Oakland is committing a FELONY against me, because they cannot prove they ever sent a notice. They are charging me with a crime for which they have no evidence, and they seem to assume they’re entitled to do so.

    If someone would like to help me file a class-action lawsuit on Oakland, please hook me up. They need to be held accountable for fining people for “not getting Oakland’s mail”. They literally told me: “we don’t care if we sent it to the north pole. If we sent it, you got it.” That’s just hubris. The judge, when I went in for the red light, gave a long speech about how “courtesy notices are just courtesies”, but he was full of crap: he was just excusing Oakland’s malfeasances. Courtesy notices are INDEED mandatory for unattended intersections, or else how would you know? And the fact is to be cheap, Oakland won’t pay the USPO for delivery notification or a signature, BUT WHEN THEY WANTED THE PAST DUE MONEY THEY DID ALL THAT TO THE HILT: “you can’t pretend we didn’t tell you.” (about what you owe us, but never mind our effectively informing you of your LEGAL obligations.)

    A process server who lies about having served a subpoena has COMMITTED A FELONY. OAKLAND IS COMMITTING FELONIES.

    Oakland owes THOUSANDS of Bay Area residents a settlement for ABUSING THEIR LEGAL RIGHTS.

    My experience with them (and similar outfits) shows it’s not about the LAW at all. All it is really about is COLLECTING REVENUE FOR THE CITY OF OAKLAND.

    It was supposed to be their due diligence to INFORM me, but they didn’t. Had I gotten the notice for the first turn on red, chances are excellent I would not have infracted again at that location. IMO due to THEIR failure to follow practice, I should only have to respond to ONE infraction, and I paid THAT infraction. Their practice amounts to RACKETEERING, and esp. since the people on the first floor at Oakland Court EXPLICITLY TOLD ME “to wait for the courtesy notice” when I tried to pay the ticket too soon.

    The people who oversee all this, are IMO criminals, including the city councilors who know about it and do nothing about it. If the only thing I accomplished in my life was to get Oakland slapped (and fined) for its fraud, that would still make a lot of people happy.

    Reach me at ten.cificapsnant@dsce.

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