Opinion | When a Traffic Ticket Costs $13,000 – The New York Times

By Emily Reina Dindial and Ronald J. Lampard

Ms. Dindial is lawyer for the A.C.L.U. Mr. Lampard is a lawyer for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

A motorist waiting as a police officer writes a citation.CreditStan Lim/Digital First Media — The Press-Enterprise, via Getty Images

For most people living in America, transportation is central to daily life. About 83 percent of Americans report that they regularly drive a car multiple times a week. Yet millions of drivers across the country have had their licenses suspended — taking away their ability to drive to work, school, the grocery store or the doctor — essentially because they are poor.

In 2014, Leah Jackson was ticketed for obstructing traffic in Ostego, Minn., after turning left at a red light. That kind of thing happens to many people. But, as Ms. Jackson explained to state lawmakers in 2018 testimony, she had just started a new job and hadn’t yet received a paycheck, so she couldn’t pay the $135 fine right away.

A few months later, she was pulled over, told her driver’s license was suspended for an unpaid ticket and cited for driving with a suspended license — a new $200 ticket. Her job responsibilities as a retail store manager required her to make bank runs and other deliveries, so she kept driving in order to keep her job. In less than a month, she received two more tickets for driving with a suspended license. After accounting for the additional tickets and the resulting increase in her monthly insurance premiums, her debt from the initial infraction spiraled into more than $13,000 over four and a half years.

The criminal justice system too often produces a self-perpetuating cycle, particularly for the poorest people, who can’t pay fines or hire lawyers to make charges go away. In 39 states, you can lose your driving privileges if you’re unable to pay a court fine or fee, for things as minor as a traffic violation. But a bipartisan effort is growing to end the fundamentally unjust practice of wealth-based suspensions.

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