Justice and Due Process

Utah Ends Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions

After a multi-year effort to ban the harmful practice of suspending individual’s driver’s licenses for failing to pay court debt and failing to appear in court for lower level traffic offenses, Utah’s Legislature finally did it: they passed House Bill 143. The legislation, signed by Governor Cox last week, was sponsored by Rep. Cory Maloy who championed the bill and helped it pass all the way through with little opposition. This legislation will help over 10,000 Utahns every year by ensuring they can continue to legally drive, even if they are unable to make a court payment for a past run-in with the law.

Utah joins 14 other states by passing this legislation, and there will likely be more to come as 10 others have active bills to ban the practice. The reason so many state governments are making this move is because poverty should not determine a person’s ability to drive. For better or worse, we live in a nation where driving is an essential part of life. Especially in a state like Utah where public transportation simply isn’t a viable option for those residing in rural counties. Yet, until this year, Utah regularly suspended people from driving if they didn’t keep up with court payments for driving-related offenses.

If an individual breaks the law, they should absolutely be held accountable for their actions. But it’s important to penalize the underlying action, not the subsequent failure to pay the associated fine. Especially because if an individual doesn’t pay, they are likely struggling financially. Taking away their license, which allows them to maintain employment, is antithetical if the goal is getting them to pay. Reliable transportation is an important asset for an employee, and removing one’s ability to drive could lead to unemployment — meaning even less of a chance that fine gets paid off.

The legislation also ensures those who fail to appear for their court date for lower level non-moving traffic violations, will not have their licenses suspended. These offenses include things like parking violations, or a broken tail light or cracked windshield. They are not serious enough to constitute a major public safety concern if the individual doesn’t show up for their associated court date. 

The penalty of suspending a license for non appearance far outweighs the mistake of not appearing. It even outweighs the penalty associated with the underlying non-moving offense which is often just an infraction. Unduly punishing individuals with such a harsh penalty is only making it more difficult for them to succeed in the justice system by adding more burdens and costs to regain their license after suspension. 

Libertas Institute was happy to work alongside many other stakeholders and advocates — including Americans for Prosperity of Utah, ACLU of Utah, and Free to Drive Coalition — to ensure the successful passage of this bill. This bipartisan effort to fix something that was easily overlooked in the system will positively impact thousands of Utahns.