Surge in reforms to ease driving penalties

This past year saw an unprecedented surge in states enacting so-called “free to drive” laws, as we documented in our recent report on criminal record reforms in 2020. Nine states enacted 16 bills that end the suspension of driver’s licenses either due to unpaid fines and fees, or due to legal violations unrelated to dangerous driving. Such suspensions make it difficult or impossible for people to get to work, take children to school, shop for groceries, or obtain healthcare.

The Free to Drive campaign, a coalition of over 140 organizations, reports that currently, 37 states and D.C. still suspend, revoke or refuse to renew driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic, toll, misdemeanor and felony fines and fees. This coalition played an instrumental role in many of the 2020 reforms, which are described below.

  • Hawaii prohibited restrictions on obtaining or renewing a driver’s license or registration, or transferring or receiving title, because of unpaid monetary obligations associated with traffic tickets incurred on or after November 1, 2020 (HB 2750). The bill also allows anyone prevented from obtaining or renewing a driver’s license or registration due to failure to pay monetary obligations associated with traffic tickets to obtain a clearance from the court.
  • Illinois enacted the “License to Work Act,” eliminating suspension of driver’s licenses as a penalty for non-payment of various fines or fees, for being judged a “truant minor,” and for various non-driving violations; a license that was suspended for these reasons will be reinstated (SB 1786).
  • Maryland repealed the authority to suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic fines and fees, with retroactive application (HB 280).
  • Maine made permanent the non-suspension of driver licenses for missing a fine payment for a non-driving related offense (LD 1953).
  • Michigan enacted seven bills that eliminate suspension of driver’s licenses for various legal violations unrelated to dangerous driving (HB 584647, 585052, 6235, HCR 29).
  • New York limited the grounds for suspension of a driver’s license; provided for additional notification when a person is required to make an appearance; and required income-based payment plans to be available for traffic fines, fees and surcharges (S5348B/A07463).
  • Oregon repealed suspension and restrictions of driving licenses for failure to pay fines (HB 4210).
  • Virginia repealed the requirement to suspend the driver’s license for non-payment of fines or costs; and requires reinstatement of any driver’s license suspended prior to July 1, 2019, solely for nonpayment of fines or costs (SB 1). The state also repealed provisions allowing a driver’s license to be suspended for: conviction or deferred disposition for a drug offense; non-payment of certain fees owed to correctional facility; or shoplifting motor fuel (HB 909).

The full 2020 report is available here.