The American justice system has been known to use questionable practices from time to time. Usually, though, most of society has some awareness when a controversial practice is taking place, whether it be three-strikes, capital punishment, or even immigration policies. But, when it comes to controversial practices used in local municipal courts, awareness is much harder to come by.
For instance, there’s at least one controversial practice currently being used by a number of municipal courts that most of society probably has no knowledge of. This is the practice of suspending a defendant’s driver’s license for failing to pay the full amount of their fine without first consulting the defendant about his or her ability to pay. In fact, this practice is so prevalent that Greeley Police claim it is a common occurrence to pull someone over and find that their license has been suspended for failing to pay a municipal fine (Greeley Police Department, ride along, August 15, 2017).
Yes, Greeley Municipal Court suspends defendants’ driver’s licenses without first confirming whether or not the defendant is willfully refusing to pay their fine. Some might say, “Well, they already had their chance to show the judge they’re indigent and not willfully refusing to pay their fine at their initial court hearing.” That’s true, but financial burdens can arise at any time, and a defendant might now be suddenly facing financial hardships or even poverty. Just because a defendant has the resources available at their initial hearing to attempt to pay their fine doesn’t mean that the court should assume this is still the case when deciding to suspend a defendant driver’s license.
In fact, the Department of Justice has itself warned against such actions. In the wake of the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Missouri, the DOJ released a letter with a “set of basic constitutional principles relevant to the enforcement of fines and fees.”1 Number five on this list stated that “Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections.”2
Despite this, Greeley Municipal Court and other municipal courts across the country have continued the questionable practice of suspending defendants’ licenses without proof that the defendants are willfully refusing to pay their fine and/or court fees. Just as with debtors’ prisons, it’s legal to jail someone who is refusing to pay their fine; it’s also legal to suspend someone’s license who is willfully refusing to pay. But municipal courts may actually be suspending the licenses of people who are just incapable of paying, not willfully refusing, which raises serious questions about the constitutionality of the practice.
There are numerous reasons why using license suspensions as a punishment for not fully paying off a fine is controversial. The biggest reason, though, is because it can be seen as a punishment for simply being poor. Suspending someone’s license for refusing to pay is a lot different than suspending someone’s license for inability to pay. Only one is actually a punishment for doing something wrong; the other is a punishment for nothing more than a person’s current condition. And without record that a defendant is willfully refusing to pay at the time the court moves to suspend their license, it’s impossible for the public to know whether or not Greeley Municipal Court is suspending licenses as a punishment for poverty.
2 Under the Trump Administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded this guideline in December, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2017/12/sessions-rescinds-protection-against-excessive-fines.php.