Driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines inflict particular harm on Black drivers

By Sian Mughan, Arizona State University

Imagine being unable to pay a US$50 traffic ticket and, as a result, facing mounting fees so high that even after paying hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars toward your debt you still owe money.

Imagine being fired from your job because you’ve been forced to use unreliable public transportation instead of your car.

And imagine going to jail several times because, even though your license is suspended, you had to drive to work.

These are some of the situations facing millions of Americans who were unable to pay fines – and whose lives were turned into a nightmare by overly punitive policies in response.

And these policies have an outsize, and damaging, impact on Black Americans, according to our research.

Black drivers are more likely to encounter police regardless of how they drive, research shows. Rich Legg/Getty Images

Cycles of debt

Most cities and states have policies that allow them to suspend a driver’s license for nonpayment of fines and fees, most commonly traffic fines.

These policies are so popular that judges have described them as “the most valuable tool available to the municipal courts for inducing payment on past due accounts.”

Studying the effects of these policies can be difficult because there is no uniform national reporting of crime statistics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that failure to pay fines – not dangerous driving – is the most common reason for driver’s license suspensions in the United States.

And research indicates that these burdens are primarily borne by low-income people and people of color.

As a public affairs scholar who has written extensively about labor markets and criminal justice systems, I’ve conducted research with Joanna Carroll supports these conclusions.

But it also illuminates a previously unknown racial inequality of the policy.

Our research suggests that, by appearing on the driver’s record, license suspensions increase the probability that Black – but not white – drivers incur more traffic tickets. Even after the debt is paid and the license regained, these suspensions continue to harm drivers, and these harms exclusively affect Black drivers.

This shows that suspensions don’t just trap people in a cycle of mounting debt but also a cycle of negative interactions with the criminal justice system.

Long-term impact of suspensions

We studied a sample of over 2,000 drivers who received traffic tickets in Marion County, Indiana, home to Indianapolis, between 2011 and 2016.

In that county, if a driver fails to pay or contest a ticket within 72 days, their license is automatically suspended. This means that judges and other members of the justice system cannot choose who receives a suspension.

Every driver in our sample paid their ticket in the days surrounding the payment deadline.

This is an ideal environment to study the long-term impacts of suspensions because it creates two groups of people that are easily comparable: those who paid the ticket right before the deadline, thus avoiding a suspension, and those who paid after the deadline and received a suspension.

We found that Black drivers who received a failure-to-pay suspension increased their likelihood of getting another ticket by up to nine percentage points. White drivers, meanwhile, saw a roughly three percentage point decrease in their likelihood of getting another ticket.

We attempted to identify differences between white and Black drivers that might explain this result but were unable to do so. For example, Black drivers are not committing more offenses than white drivers, nor are the offenses they commit more serious. Black drivers are just as likely as white drivers to pay their tickets. And Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to reinstate their license after the suspension.

Moreover, regardless of race, following the suspension, drivers with larger fines are less likely to receive another ticket, suggesting that all drivers drive more cautiously after getting a suspension, likely to reduce the probability of receiving another ticket. This is consistent with previous studies on the effects of traffic policies, which show traffic enforcement leads to safer driving.

Ineffective strategies for Black drivers

We believe the most convincing explanation for our findings is that driving “better” to avoid being pulled over is an ineffective strategy for Black drivers, who are more likely to have an encounter with police regardless of how they drive.

This interpretation is consistent with studies showing Black people are more likely to be pulled over without cause. After pulling over a Black driver, the police officer discovers the prior failure-to-pay suspension and becomes more likely to issue a ticket.

This sequence of events does not occur when the driver is white because white drivers are able to minimize the chance of being pulled over by changing their driving behavior.

Our research is the first to study failure-to-pay suspensions in the United States, and it’s the first to demonstrate that they exert disproportionate harm on Black drivers.

This evidence could prove relevant to policymakers in states across the county who are currently debating discontinuing license suspension for nonpayment of legal debts.

Dr. Joanna Carroll co-authored this research while she was at Indiana University. She currently works at the Government Accountability Office.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

IRS hitting you with a fine or late fee? Don’t fret – a consumer tax advocate says you still have options

By Rita W. Green, University of Memphis

Tax Day has come and gone, and you think you filed your return in the nick of time. But several weeks later you receive that dreaded letter in the mail from the Internal Revenue Service informing you of missing the deadline and failing to pay your tax bill on time. Your assessed tax penalty, based on what you owe, is $450.

This type of scenario is quite common, since penalties are assessed for over 40 million taxpayers each year, according to the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel’s 2020 report. There are numerous IRS penalties, but the three most common ones are failure to file a return on time, failure to pay the estimated amount owed from the past year and failure to pay after filing.

For many taxpayers, it doesn’t end on Tax Day. Constantine Johnny/ Moment via Getty Images

What many people don’t know is that the IRS offers several ways to reduce late fees and other penalties. Yet only a fraction of those who are eligible take advantage of them.

As a professor of accounting and a consumer advocate, I tend to be concerned when I identify a benefit that has been underutilized. I also serve as a volunteer on the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, an independent body that aims to help the IRS improve based on outreach and feedback from the general public.

We recently discussed the low utilization of a key penalty relief program, which prompted me to write this article.

Applying for penalty relief

The main form of relief the IRS offers to taxpayers is the first-time penalty abatement policy, which was introduced about two decades ago. It covers penalties related to a failure to file, a failure to pay or a failure to deposit the estimated taxes owed.

This program can lead to a reduction or even removal of a taxpayer’s penalty – though not the tax liability – if you meet certain conditions:

  • You didn’t previously have to file a return – because you earned too little money, for example – or you’ve had no penalties for the previous three years.

  • You filed all required returns or extensions.

  • You paid or arranged to pay any tax due.

It’s also available to taxpayers who live in areas affected by specific disasters for whom the tax deadline has been extended.

If you currently meet the first two requirements, you can still make arrangements to pay the tax you owe and then request the abatement.

In 2019, only 12% of the penalties for failure to file and failure to pay were abated.

The most common reason for the low number of abatements appears to be that many taxpayers who would otherwise qualify for relief aren’t aware this program even exists. Requesting relief is as simple as phoning the IRS and requesting it, or you may ask for it in writing.

Other resources available

In addition to penalty prevention and penalty relief, other resources are available to taxpayers who need help after Tax Day.

The taxpayer advocate service is an independent organization within the IRS, and its local taxpayer advocates provide free help to any taxpayer to provide guidance through the process of resolving tax problems. There’s at least one in every state.

The IRS also supports Low-Income Tax Clinics, which are staffed with attorneys and other professionals to help low-income filers with tax disputes that may require legal intervention. While it can be difficult to reverse penalties or challenge other IRS decisions, taxpayers with legal help stand a much better chance of succeeding with their claims.

An ounce of penalty prevention

Many people may be familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

No one enjoys paying taxes, but additional penalties can make a bad situation even worse. The good news is most penalties can be avoided by filing taxes on time and paying any taxes due. If you are unable to pay all of the taxes due right away, you can always establish a payment plan.

So next year, remember there are many resources available to you to make it easier to file on time – free, in most cases – and to avoid penalties. And taxpayer advocates are available to answer any tricky questions.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.