Driven Deeper Into Poverty: Missouri Suspends Parents’ Driver’s Licenses
March 4, 2019
In 2014 Missouri adopted legislation that authorized its courts and agencies to suspend an individual’s driver’s license if they owe $2,500 in past-due child support, or three months of payments, whichever is less.
Theoretically this legislation incentivizes non-custodial parents to pay on their child support. We want the law to incentivize people to obey it, but this “incentive” does nothing but punish poor parents for falling behind on their monthly payments.
Suspending debtors’ driver’s licenses may seem like a good incentive to force payment, but it’s one that punishes parents and children for being poor.
Missouri’s statutory scheme portrays parents with support orders as individuals who do not want to support their children. The legislative theory establishes that parents won’t support their children until the state threatens to take something from them. This theory is out of touch with parents who don’t have the financial stability to pay.
Parents want to support their children, but poverty gets in their way. The statute only gives parents three months to figure out their finances before an agency or the court can suspend their license. And even after the suspension, parents only have three options: pay their debt in full, accept a payment plan from the state, or go to an administrative hearing to prove they are not in debt. None of these options provide any leeway or help to people who cannot afford their payments.
Here is where the logic of the license suspension fails—without a driver’s license most parents in Missouri can’t get to work. And when they stop working, they fall deeper into debt.
It is near impossible to get from place to place in Missouri without a car. There are few options for public transportation, especially in the rural parts of the state. And even in the areas that do have a form of public transportation, the options are expensive and time consuming. Most Missourians have an average work commute of 47 minutes, but without reliable transportation it can become an impossible feat to travel.
Without a license, parents in debt have two options: drive and risk criminal charges, or stay home and fall deeper into debt. For most parents in this situation this can be the choice between keeping their kids fed and having a roof over their heads, or homelessness. Suspending debtors’ driver’s licenses may seem like a good incentive to force payment—but it’s one that punishes parents and children for being poor. Debtors’ children watch as their parents struggle to make ends meet, and sometimes these suspensions prevent non-custodial parents from seeing their kids.
One plaintiff’s daughter has become increasingly depressed without her father, believing she will have to find a new daddy even though she does not want one.
On Monday, March 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a lawsuit in Missouri against the Family Support Division, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and Governor Michael Parson for this discriminatory suspension scheme. We argue that this statutory scheme violates procedural due process by not giving debtors a pre-suspension hearing to assert that they cannot pay off their debt in full. We also contend that the suspension scheme violates the debtors’ right to travel.
The two named plaintiffs are parents who fell behind on their child support payments because they could not afford them, not because they did not want to pay. Both have already faced criminal non-payment charges for falling behind, and now their licenses are suspended. And without their licenses, they have taken serious cuts to their yearly income.
Nathan Wright is a single father of two has no choice but to drive. He has two young children in his care whom he has to drive to school and doctor appointments. As a contract worker, his ability to travel is what stands between him and unemployment. Each day this is a risk—if he is caught driving without his license he faces more criminal charges, additional fees, and may lose the ability to care for his children.
Camese Bedford is a U.S. Navy veteran who was not properly informed of his legal obligation to pay child support. It wasn’t until he was notified that his license was suspended that he even knew he was in debt. Without his license, he can only take jobs that are within walking distance of his home or flexible with a public bus system that is expensive and slow.
But it’s really his young daughter that is suffering the most under this suspension scheme. Without a car he cannot exercise his visitation rights and his daughter has become increasingly depressed without her father, believing she will have to find a new daddy even though she does not want one. He has begun making payments on his arrears and his current child support, but the state will not reinstate his license until the debt is officially gone.
Suspending licenses for debt does nothing but punish people for being poor and ensures that they continue being poor. Children deserve support, but taking away the way for parents to make money does nothing to help kids. Instead, it traps parents in their homes and puts them at risk of criminal charges if they drive. This discriminatory scheme must end.
Means of Transportation To Work By Selected Categories of Workplace Geography, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_17_5YR_S0804&prodType=table.