License Suspensions for Nondriving Offenses:
Practices in Four States That May Ease the Financial Impact on Low-Income Individuals
GAO-10-217: Published: Feb 18, 2010. Publicly Released: Feb 18, 2010.
States suspend driver's licenses for a variety of offenses that are not directly related to driving safety. For example, all states have procedures to suspend licenses for child support arrearages. In addition, a majority of states issue suspensions for such offenses as failure to pay court or motor vehicle fines or maintain proper insurance. While recognizing that license suspension can be an effective tool for encouraging compliance with various laws, some policymakers and advocacy groups have raised concerns that certain drivers may face suspension because of their limited ability to meet financial obligations. They have also raised concerns that suspensions make it difficult for some low-income individuals to maintain or find work, and may make it more challenging for them to pay fines or meet child support obligations. Additionally, they have raised concerns that suspensions for nondriving offenses may clog court systems and divert resources to activities that do not improve traffic safety. Although the federal government has a limited role with regard to driver's licenses, federal law promotes nondriving suspensions in two circumstances. First, as a condition of federal funding for their child support enforcement programs, states are required to provide for license suspensions for individuals delinquent in making child support payments. Second, 10 percent of certain federal highway funds are contingent upon a state (a) enacting and enforcing a law that suspends driver's licenses, in all cases, or except in compelling circumstances, for individuals convicted of drug offenses, or (b) its governor certifying that he or she is opposed to such a law and that the state legislature has adopted a resolution opposing it. Thirty-two states have chosen the second option. While there has been interest in nondriving suspensions in recent years, little is known about the prevalence of and reasons for such suspensions or who is affected. With driver licensure generally a state responsibility, national-level data are not available and cannot be readily compiled. According to researchers and state officials we spoke with, while states collect data on license suspensions, they do not consistently categorize suspensions by the type of offense or classify them as being related to driving or nondriving offenses. Even when states categorize suspension data by type of offense, they differ in the ways they do so. Moreover, states do not generally collect suspension data for drivers by income level. A study of one state found that the vast majority of drivers were suspended for a variety of compliance reasons that were not directly related to driving behavior, such as not paying parking tickets or failing to maintain proper insurance. This suggests that, at least in one state, the number of nondriving suspensions may have been significant. In response to Congress' request, GAO examined the following issues related to nondriving license suspensions: 1) Practices in place that may ease the financial impact on low-income individuals; 2) Any challenges involved in implementing these practices.
In general, GAO found the following: (1) In the four states studied, it found three types of practices that may ease the financial impact of suspensions on low-income individuals: payment assistance, license reinstatement support, and suspension exemptions. Payment assistance, which includes payment plans, payment alternatives, and fine reductions, generally helps drivers who have difficulty paying, for example, parking or traffic-related fines. License reinstatement support includes guidance, case management, and legal services that can help drivers navigate the sometimes complicated relicensing process. For example, some individuals owe fines to multiple courts and so must take several steps to address the reason for suspension. Suspension exemptions may apply with respect to certain nondriving offenses, such as the nonpayment of child support. In addition, exemptions can take the form of permitting restricted licenses, which allow individuals to drive to specific places. Courts, nonprofit organizations, child support enforcement agencies, and departments of motor vehicles implement these practices. Some of these practices were established to reduce administrative burdens on court systems, while others were created to lessen employment barriers, according to staff GAO interviewed. (2) Challenges to implementing these practices include the need to garner support from multiple organizations, difficulties in crossing jurisdictional boundaries, and sustaining program funding, according to program staff. Staff from one of the programs that involves multiple entities told us that building a strong collaboration among its four partner organizations was time-consuming but critical to establishing their program. In addition, jurisdictional boundaries limit the reach of some court-based programs. Several programs noted that while many drivers owe fines in multiple cities or counties, courts typically cannot offer payment assistance for fines owed to other jurisdictions. With respect to funding, two programs recently experienced budget reductions that affected program capacity. In conclusion, the limited information on the prevalence and impact of nondriving suspensions, as well as on the effectiveness of the types of practices GAO found, may make it difficult for other localities and states to readily assess the need for these practices and to identify the most effective approaches. Also, while driver licensure is generally within the domain of state governments, some federal efforts exist that could facilitate information gathering and dissemination. DOT participates in a national working group that has brought together federal, state, and local officials to facilitate research, identify effective alternatives to suspension, and share information with state policymakers. In addition, HHS disseminates "best practices" for child support enforcement, including those related to driver's license suspensions, which provides a mechanism for information-sharing among states.