Journal of Leadership and the Law

The Modern Day Debtor’s Prison: Consequences of Driver’s License Suspension as a Debt Collection Mechanism

Reflecting on the Project’s Contribution to the Aims of the Leadership Fellows Program

By Merima Mustafic L'May'17

Elon Law’s Leadership Fellows program aims to equip its Fellows with the knowledge and skills necessary to address important public policy and social challenges. In part, the aim of Merima Mustafic’s Capstone project was to meet the urgent challenges posed by criminal justice debt and the use of driver’s license suspension as a debt collection mechanism. Long before her project, advocates across the country focused on the harms of excessive fines and fees in the criminal justice system, and in particular, on the disproportionate impact that these costs have on the poor and people of color. Numerous reports by advocacy groups, research by scholars, and lawsuits by civil rights plaintiffs have revealed the stark injustices that result from the improper imposition and collection of criminal justice debt. Understanding legal financial obligations is critical to understanding how the justice system creates inequality, and is thus an important step in addressing the public policy and social challenges confronting the local community. Countering the underdevelopment of communities demands a bold course of action. Conviction and incarceration already reduce the employment prospects and earning capacity of those with criminal records. Adding unpayable legal financial obligations and the penalty of driver’s license suspension to this burden divests an individual from society. At worst, it helps set conditions for the individual to resort to extralegal means of sustenance and sets the conditions for return to prison. Thus, reforming legal financial obligations and debt collection mechanisms employed by courts sit within the broader need to rethink collateral consequences as a whole.

There should be consequences for motor vehicle offenses. Everyone should receive a proportional punishment for speeding or failures to signal or lapsed registrations. But a traffic ticket should not derail an individual’s life. Yet in North Carolina, for people too poor to write a check, a simple traffic ticket leads to a cascade of unconstitutional and devastating consequences. Penalties might be appropriate for someone who simply refuses to pay, even though he or she can afford to do so. But penalties cannot elicit payments from someone who has no money. Instead, these penalties trap people on low incomes in a bureaucratic maze of growing debt. The result is a two-tiered system of justice, in which the well-off get what amounts to a slap on the wrist, and the impoverished are trapped in a debtor’s prison.

While it was beyond the scope of Mustafic’s project to recommend the best option for collecting fines and fees from low-income people, it nonetheless remains that revoking a driver’s license for non-safety related issues is a questionable policy. Using driver’s license revocation to collect revenue is the functional heir of the debtor’s prison and continues to have a grave impact on North Carolina’s communities. Driven by implicit and explicit biases within courts and law enforcement, there is clear impact of these harms on low-income people and especially on communities of color. If the state of North Carolina is committed to eradicating institutional racism and promoting justice and fairness in our communities, it must halt this ongoing harm.