Drive drunk, drive recklessly, and the state can suspend your driver's license. But many police and motor vehicle administrators worry about a recent trend: A large number of suspensions are for reasons that have nothing to do with unsafe driving.
These reasons include unpaid traffic tickets, falling behind on child support, getting caught with drugs, bouncing checks; or minor juvenile offenses like missing school, using false identification to buy alcohol, or shoplifting.
Increasingly, people who study driver safety say this makes little sense. A study in 2013 from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators raised concerns that police and state and local motor vehicle officials find too much of their time and budget tied up going after people with suspensions for minor lawbreaking that has nothing to do with safe driving.
"They want to focus on the people who pose a risk to the general population that's driving on the roadway. And those are usually the people who are suspended for ... things like hit-and-run crashes, DUIs, unsafe speed, reckless driving — those actions that we as a society consider severe and dangerous on the roadway," says Robert Eger, who wrote a study for the motor vehicle administrators.
In Milwaukee, Desiree Seats, 23, knows how a suspended license can be limiting, and how having a valid license can open opportunities: She lost her license before she even got it.
This summer, Seats went for her first driver's license and passed the road test. But instead of being given the license, she was told it already was suspended.
About six years ago, when she was 16, Seats had been caught shoplifting jeans and a shirt at a suburban department store. She went to court and was fined on a juvenile charge, but the fine never was paid. Seats says she didn't know about the fine and that neither she nor her mother would have had the money back then to pay it.
She still owed $315, and that kicked in a license suspension for two years from the day she was eligible to receive one.
Eger, a retired police officer who is now a professor at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., found that nationwide about 40 percent of people whose licenses are suspended lose them for reasons other than bad driving.
It all started with laws passed by Congress in the late 1980s. First, a law took away the driver's license of men who didn't pay child support. Then came one for people caught with drugs.
Next, state lawmakers added hundreds of reasons that had nothing to do with unsafe driving. Eger found that at least 18 states will suspend someone's driver's license for failure to pay the fines on nondriving traffic violations. And four states will suspend it for not paying parking tickets. Among the other reasons: school truancy, bouncing a check, not paying college loans, graffiti and littering.
Eger says that no research shows that suspending a license will make someone likely to change his behavior.
But Colleen Eubanks of the National Child Support Enforcement Association says just the threat of losing a license makes a difference. "It's an effective tool for motivating people to pay their child support," she says. Billions of dollars of child support are collected each year using this tactic.
"Driving is a privilege, and if you're not willing to support your children and [you] expect society to do it," she says, "then you should lose the privilege of driving."
But there's also evidence that when people lose a license for reasons unrelated to safety, they take suspensions less seriously. At least 75 percent of people who have had their licenses revoked just keep driving, according to the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"You don't need a license to drive; you just need a car," says Jim Gramling, a former Municipal Court judge in Milwaukee. After Gramling retired from the court, he went to work as a volunteer lawyer at the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, an organization he helped start. It's a place where those with low income can get legal help.
Courts will order arrest warrants when people don't pay court fines and fees. At the end of his time as a judge, Gramling dropped those arrest warrants for impoverished defendants. But they still had to pay off their fines. Similar ticket amnesties have been tried around the country — including this month in Ferguson, Mo. Those programs have had limited success.
In Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union took a different approach and argued in a 2013 lawsuit that the state discriminated against poor people when it took away their driver's licenses for failure to pay court fines and fees. About 200,000 drivers had their licenses suspended that year for not paying the fines. But a court has largely rejected the argument.
Gramling says people with money just pay off their fines — and avoid court. But people with little money often struggle when they get tickets.
"Often they're living lives where they can't afford to leave a job early, or at all, to go to court. They can't hire a lawyer, can't afford a lawyer. So they often let the cases go by default and don't challenge tickets that maybe should be challenged," he says. "It's tough."
In Milwaukee, Seats went to the Center for Driver's License Recovery; lawyers and case managers there helped her negotiate paying off her fine in small amounts over several months and get the suspension lifted.
She had already bought a car — a used, nine-year-old Hyundai Elantra. With a dependable car and a valid license, she figured she had everything she needed to start making money.
Seats, the mother of a 4-year-old boy, now works as a personal care assistant, helping a woman with a disability fix meals, bathe and get dressed.
A few days after getting her license, she also started a second job delivering newspapers, and she has also applied for a job delivering pizza. And the freedom of being able to drive helps her attend a technical college as well, where she's studying to become a pharmacy assistant.
"I'm very goal-oriented," she explains as she drives to the house of the woman she helps with chores. "I have a lot of goals that I want to accomplish, in a set amount of time. And that's what I'm working on now."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Everyone wants unsafe drivers off the road. Drive drunk, drive recklessly and your driver's license can be suspended. So you might be surprised that about 40 percent of license suspensions are for things that have nothing to do with driver safety. Earlier this year our investigative series "Guilty and Charged" showed that states revoke licenses when people don't pay court fines and fees. Police and motor vehicle administrators now say that's a bad idea. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On a gray and chilly morning in Milwaukee, Desiree Seats gets into the car she bought recently, a 9-year-old Hyundai Elantra for $12,000, her favorite color.
DESIREE SEATS: Yeah, it's red.
SHAPIRO: Detailed on the door with small red and yellow flames.
SEATS: With the fire flames on the side. (Laughter) It came like that.
SHAPIRO: Seats is 23 and there's something else she just got. She shows her new driver's license.
SEATS: Yeah, I got my license last week - Wednesday. And I just felt relieved once I got my license. Oh, I felt like, when I get in the car I just had no worries. I wasn't worried about nothing, because I had everything that I needed.
SHAPIRO: She got that license just six days ago. Since then she's started one new job and applied for another.
SEATS: Well, I do the newspaper.
SHAPIRO: She delivers it seven days a week.
SEATS: That started Sunday and I do that from three in the morning to six in the morning, but however, I put in an application for Papa John's to do the delivery for them part-time as well. And that start off at $13 and you get paid gas mileage every single day.
SHAPIRO: That's on top of the job she already has as a personal care worker helping a woman with a disability fix meals, bathe and get dressed, two hours a day, seven days a week. She's driving to that woman's house now. And with this car and her license, she figures she can get new clients in the suburbs where the pay is well above minimum wage. Plus, she goes to school three days a week at the technical college where she's studying to be a pharmacy assistant. And she's the mother of a 4-year-old boy. Her mother, who lives across town, helps look after him. So all this striving starts with that driver's license. But she almost didn't get it.
SEATS: That's what makes it so crazy because how can you lose your driver's license before you even have the privilege to drive?
SHAPIRO: Here's what happened - this summer Desiree Seats went to get her first driver's license. She passed the road test, but then the woman at the DMV said she couldn't get her license because it had been suspended.
SEATS: And she said, did you catch a case in Brown Deer? And I said, oh, yeah, when I was a juvenile. She said, unfortunately, we can't give you any licensing until you handle this.
SHAPIRO: That case, in the suburb of Brown Deer, was for shoplifting. She took a pair of jeans and a shirt from a department store.
SEATS: Just some clothes for me to wear to school. I wish I would never did it.
SHAPIRO: That was some six years ago when she was 16. But there was a court fine on that juvenile charge and it never got paid. Seats said she didn't know about the fine and that neither she nor her mother had the money back then to pay it. This September when she tried to get her driver's license, she still owed $315. Because of that unpaid fine from years before, her license was suspended starting the day she got it for two years.
ROBERT EGER: Well, from a highway safety point of view, it's counterproductive because you're taking away the driving privilege of individuals, right, based on something that doesn't have anything to do with their driving ability or their safety record on the roadway.
SHAPIRO: That's Robert Eger, a retired police officer who is now a professor at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California. He wrote a 2013 report for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Those officials and police too worry that they're spending too much of their time suspending the licenses of the wrong people.
EGER: They want to focus on the people who pose a risk to the general population that's driving on the roadway. And those are usually the people who are suspended for, you know, things like hit-and-run crashes, D.U.I.'s, unsafe speed, reckless driving - those actions that we as a society consider severe and dangerous on the roadway.
SHAPIRO: His study found that nationwide about 40 percent of people who lose their driver's license lose it for reasons other than bad driving. This all started with laws passed by Congress in the late 1980s. First the law that took away the driver's license of men who didn't pay child support - then one for people caught with drugs. Next, state lawmakers added reasons of their own - hundreds of them - that have nothing to do with unsafe driving. For failing to pay the fines on non-driving traffic violations - that's a reason to lose your license in at least 18 states - even for not paying parking tickets in four states. For school truancy - 16 states. For bouncing a check, for graffiti, for not repaying your college loans, for littering...
EGER: Terroristic threats on school property is Pennsylvania, and then New York - advocating the overthrow of the government is the way New York lists it.
SHAPIRO: Eger says no research shows that once someone's lost their license that they're likely to then change their behavior. But Colleen Eubanks of the National Child Support Enforcement Association says first, just the threat of losing a license does make a difference.
COLLEEN EUBANKS: It's an effective tool for motivating people to pay their child support.
SHAPIRO: She says billions of dollars of child support are collected each year once parents who owe money are warned that they're at risk of losing a license.
EUBANKS: Driving is a privilege and if you're not willing to support your children but expect society to do it, then you should lose a privilege of driving.
SHAPIRO: But there's also evidence that when people lose a license for a reason unrelated to safety, they take a suspension less seriously. One study estimates that 75 percent of people who've had their license revoked just keep on driving.
JIM GRAMLING: One of my colleagues, former colleagues, at the court here was fond of saying you don't need a license to drive, you just need a car.
SHAPIRO: That's Jim Gramling. He's a former municipal court judge in Milwaukee. After Gramling retired from the court, he went to work as a volunteer lawyer at the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability. He helped start it. It's a place where people with a low income who've had their license suspended can get legal help.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Announcing) There is no eating, drinking or talking in the courtroom.
SHAPIRO: On this morning, he's come back to his old court to help one woman who lost her license.
GRAMLING: Hi, Adela, how are you?
ADELA: Fine, thank you. How are you?
GRAMLING: Good. I've got an installment payment to make for a client. It's her first payment of many to come.
SHAPIRO: An unpaid ticket can result in arrest. At the end of his time as a judge, Gramling dropped those arrest warrants for impoverished defendants, but they still had to pay off their fines. Similar ticket amnesties have been tried around the country, including this month in Ferguson, Missouri. Those programs have had limited success. Gramling says people with money just pay off their fines and avoid court, but people with little money often struggle when they get tickets.
GRAMLING: Often they're living lives where they can't afford to leave a job early, or at all, to go to court. They can't hire a lawyer - can't afford a lawyer - so they often let the cases go by default and don't challenge tickets that maybe should be challenged. It's tough.
SHAPIRO: Remember Desiree Seats, whose license was suspended the day she got it? She came to the center where Gramling works and got the suspension lifted. Staff helped her work out a plan to pay her fine in small amounts over several months.
SEATS: I'm very goal-oriented. I have a lot of goals that I want to accomplish in a set amount of time, and that's what I'm working on now.
SHAPIRO: And it starts with a car, with getting her suspension lifted and having a valid driver's license. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.