July 31, 2020

Van Hollen Joins Coons-Wicker Bill Targeting Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions

The Driving for Opportunity Act is supported by a growing bipartisan coalition

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) cosponsored bipartisan legislation led by Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to encourage states to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions. 

“Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fees is a misguided relic from the ‘War on Drugs’ era that punishes people who can’t pay their bills on time by making it even harder for them to make an income to pay their bills. How stupid is that?” said Senator Van Hollen. “This pandemic has led to record unemployment and financial challenges for many Americans struggling to survive. Instead of further punishing them or criminalizing poverty, this bipartisan bill makes a commonsense and well overdue change.” 

“We are pleased to have the growing support of our Senate colleagues in working to end a practice that has punished poverty and strained police-community relations for too long,” Senator Coons said. “Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees makes it harder for Americans to hold down a job and care for their families, and places an undue burden on our police officers. The widespread, bipartisan support for this bill underscores the need to end this counterproductive policy once and for all.” 

“I am glad that more of my colleagues are recognizing the value of the Driving for Opportunity Act. Suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fines and fees is a counterproductive penalty for Americans who need a car to earn a living and take care of their family,” Senator Wicker said. “My home state of Mississippi banned the practice in 2018, and other states should be encouraged to follow our lead.” 

Since the Driving for Opportunity Act was introduced earlier this month, it has continued to garner support from a variety of organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National District Attorneys Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National Urban League, and Instacart. Joining Senator Van Hollen in cosponsoring the Driving for Opportunity Act were Senators John Boozman (R-Ark.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). 

“We need to be realistic about the harm a suspended driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees has on an individual and their family, especially in the midst of a national health emergency and an economic crisis. For most Americans, driving a vehicle is essential. This is especially true in many small cities, towns and rural areas that may have limited access to public transportation and ride sharing alternatives. In these places, driving is often the only realistic means of transportation. Taking this ability away is counterproductive as it makes it more difficult for an individual to find or keep a job and therefore pay the debt owed to the government. The Driving for Opportunity Act will help put an end to this unfair practice,” Senator Boozman said. 

“The U.S. needs to stop criminalizing poverty, period. If someone in this country doesn’t have the means to pay a fine, revoking their driver’s license and preventing them from driving to work won’t solve anything – it will only make things worse,” said Senator Harris. “I thank Senators Coons and Wicker for being champions of this important bill.”

“Driver’s licenses are particularly important for folks who live in rural parts of the country as families need to access grocery stores, pharmacies, child care and employment. This legislation provides a positive incentive for people to continue to work to pay off debts instead of placing roadblocks to their ability to pay them off. I’m glad to support this bill that targets people who have committed minor offenses unrelated to driving and show no public safety risk,” Senator Grassley said. 

Nationwide, at least 11 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees, not for any public safety reasons. This makes it harder for Americans to go to work to pay off their debts and places an unnecessary burden on police to enforce suspensions, expending resources that should go to public safety, increasing hostilities in the communities they serve, and putting officers and citizens at increased risk of infection during a pandemic.

For a one-pager on the Driving for Opportunity Act, please click here.

For the bill text, please click here.