The Crime of Poverty: Suspending Drivers’ Licenses Over Child Support
Nov. 5, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye proclaims, “it’s not a sin to be poor.”* But then, the play was set in Tsarist Russia and all he had to worry about were pogroms. In Florida, the poor aren’t so lucky. For example, 77% of driver’s license suspensions are because of a failure to pay fees. The Florida Senate is looking into reforming the laws relating to the suspensions of driver’s licenses. Hopefully the first reform will be to get rid of license suspensions for child support arrearages.
All 50 states have laws that provide for the suspension of driver’s licenses when a defendant is delinquent in providing child support. All 50 states also have criminal penalties for driving on a suspended license. All 50 states also have criminal penalties for failure to pay child support.
So get behind on your child support, and you lose your license. Lose your license, and you can’t drive to work. Can’t drive to work, and you lose your job. (Or you can’t get one, because you don’t have “reliable transportation.”) Lose your job, and you get further behind on your child support, and eventually go to jail.
Or the more common scenario, lose your license, but keep driving illegally. Eventually, you’re going to get pulled over. In which, now you’re both behind on your child support and charged with a crime. The court will assess fines and costs, and so will the DMV, and all of this has to get paid, along with your child support arrearage, before you can get your license back. You probably can’t pay it, so you have to keep driving illegally, and eventually you’ll get pulled over again. Fines and costs pile up, which you still can’t pay, and after this happens enough times (once, for some judges) you’ll go to jail. And then you’ll lose your job, and get further behind on your child support, and eventually go to jail.
You may be saying to yourself, “Self, it can’t be that bad. After all, the federal government requires that states do this as part of 42 USC 666(a)(16), and Congress wouldn’t have passed such a law if it wasn’t effective!”
As it happens, the Congressional Research Service investigated this very issue. This excerpt from the conclusion says it all:
States that consistently use this enforcement tool have found that the risk of losing a driver’s license is an effective means of bringing some noncustodial parents who are delinquent in paying child support into compliance. Although we do not have child support collections data that corroborate their assertion, many states maintain that driver’s license suspension is an effective, efficient, and inexpensive enforcement tool. (Emphasis added.)
Truly a model of data-driven public policy, that.
The fundamental problem is that the rationale for these laws is based on the worst outliers. No one has sympathy for a “personal trainer to the stars” who “allegedly generates thousands of dollars a week” but still owes a quarter of a million dollars in back child support. Enforcement of those laws is often less about the individual defendant, or his children, but rather pour encourager les autres:
The District Attorney’s office hopes this case sends a message.
“We’re also looking at general deterrence to make sure that people understand that they cannot commit this crime and they can’t get away with this crime,” [the prosecutor] said.
But most people aren’t that guy. Most people who owe child support are just … poor. A 2004 report from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that 83% of parents with child support arrearages make less than $20,000 per year. And that was before the recession. “General deterrence” is just another way of saying, “we’re going to punish you for not having any money.”
This is a situation where it’s easier for the government to be seen doing something rather than actually doing something. Politicians look like they are concerned with a pressing social problem, prosecutors look tough on “deadbeats,” and in the meantime the poor schmuck who actually owes the money can’t drive to work.
Whatever the claims of the “many states” in the CRS report, this is not effective (except for public relations), not efficient (except for making things harder on all parties), and not inexpensive (except for the state.) And this is only one of the myriad problems when it comes to child support. If you’re too poor to pay the ordered amount, good luck finding an attorney to help you navigate the family court system to get the payment modified.
While there is plenty to complain about in the field of child support enforcement, at least when it comes to other enforcement mechanisms (such as wage withholding orders), the objective is to actually get money from the parents to the kids. Suspending a driver’s license does nothing to achieve that goal, and actually makes it worse. It makes about as much sense as ordering someone to run the 100 yard dash in under 10 seconds, but then tying their shoelaces together before yelling “go.”
There are so many areas of law where there is no good solution. This is not one of those areas. There is a good solution, and a simple one to boot. Driver’s license suspensions for child support arrearages just need to go.
* Tevye also notes, “but it’s no great honor, either.”