Suspended licenses for failure to pay fines a ‘circular problem,’ Grassley says

By: - August 15, 2023 10:25 am

More than 62% of Iowa driver's license suspensions are due to unpaid fines or fees. (Stock photo via Canva)

More than 62% of Iowans with suspended driver’s licenses are barred from driving due to non-payment of Iowa fines, failure to satisfy non-Iowa citations or non-payment of child support. 

In total, 181,418 Iowans have at least one sanction on their driver’s license. 

Given the limited public transportation options, many Iowans rely on their own driver’s license to get from point A to point B, or from home to a paycheck.

In an attempt to help people get back on the road, Sen. Chuck Grassley has joined a bill to assist driver’s license reinstatement programs. 

Suspended licenses in Iowa

A total of 181,418 drivers have licenses under active suspension, revocation, habitual offender, cancellation, or disqualification. That includes:

  • 163,147 total active suspensions due to unpaid civil or criminal fines or fees
  • 18,893 active revocations due to a deferred judgment
  • 15,664 active barments due to being a habitual offender
  • 5,036 active cancellations
  • 2,266 active disqualifications

*Some drivers have more than one active sanction at a time.*

Data courtesy of Iowa Department of Transportation as of Aug. 3.

“Now, I think people ought to pay their fines, but I think if you take away their driver’s license you’re taking away their ability to drive to work,” Grassley said during a call last month with Iowa reporters. “If you don’t have a job, it’s pretty difficult to pay your fines.”

The bill aims “to provide grants to states that do not suspend, revoke or refuse to renew a driver’s license of a person or refuse to renew a registration of a motor vehicle for failure to pay a civil or criminal fine or fee, and for other purposes.”

The bipartisan bill would authorize grants to states to fund driver’s license assistance programs, create programs to maximize the number of individuals who regain driving privileges and assist people living in areas where public transportation is limited, according to Grassley’s office

“If the government wants people to pay fines, then the government shouldn’t prevent them from getting to work,” Grassley said in a news release. “Our bill resets the incentives to stop the circular problem of states suspending licenses for anyone who owes fines or fees. This is especially important in rural states like Iowa, where travel by car is even more necessary.” 

Driver’s license reinstatement programs

Some counties offer programs to reinstate driver’s licenses before a fine is fully paid off, like this one offered by the Clinton County attorney’s office, and Grassley’s bill looks to expand on those programs.

Clinton County’s program allows for monthly payments to be made, and if made in a timely manner, a license can be reinstated before the entire fine has been paid off. 

Mary Wolfe, a Clinton attorney and former state representative, has fought against suspended licenses before. She said some people with suspended licenses may continue to drive because they do not have enough self control, or they need to drive to take kids to school or get to work. If someone gets picked up for that, they get more fines and a license suspension lasts even longer, Wolfe said. 

Wolfe said driver’s reinstatement programs are “certainly better than nothing,” but paying the $50 a month that some of the programs ask for just is not possible for some people.

Not every county has programs to help people get their licenses back sooner, Wolfe added.

“When you’re living barely paycheck to paycheck or you’re on a fixed income, $50 a month doesn’t seem like much to some of us but for them, something comes up… I do think it’s really really hard,” Wolfe said. “…These programs are good but in the end if you just don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”

Grassley says his bill would not decrease driver safety but it would reduce the time law enforcement agencies spend enforcing suspensions, especially for those driving uninsured while suspended. 

According to the Iowa DOT, of more than 181,000 sanctioned drivers in Iowa, more than 136,500 drivers also have an active suspension due to unpaid civil or criminal fines or fees due to a default in payment for an accident, non-payment of an Iowa fine, failure to satisfy a non-Iowa citation or non-payment of child support.

Nearly 113,000 drivers have an active suspension due to only having the following: non-payment of Iowa fine, failure to satisfy a non-Iowa citation or non-payment of child support, according to DOT data.

Suspension for failing to pay a fee is different than suspension for some, more serious driving offenses, the bill’s authors argue.

“Drunk and dangerous driving are some of the leading causes of death and serious bodily injury in the United States, and promoting safety on the roads is a legitimate, necessary, and core governmental function,” the bill’s text reads. “Suspending a license for unsafe driving conduct presents different considerations than suspending a license for unpaid fines and fees.”

Iowa has reduced suspensions due to non-driving offenses, fines 

Wolfe introduced legislation in 2016 that would eliminate suspensions for non-driving related offenses and although it did not pass, aspects of her legislation have been enacted since 2016.

A 2018 law discontinued suspensions of licenses for those convicted of controlled substance charges. Previously, a license could be suspended for six months for a controlled substance conviction. 

Suspensions for non-driving offenses have largely been eliminated. However, for states to receive funding from the federal Child Support Enforcement program, states must have laws in place suspending driver’s licenses for non-payment of child support. 

“Now it’s only unpaid driving related fines,” Wolfe said. “They used to pull it for, you know, whether it was fines for a theft charge or a trespass charge or whatever… So it’s been narrowed down considerably I guess is the point, which is good and I appreciate that. But it’s still a problem.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jay Waagmeester
Jay Waagmeester

Jay is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch intern. Jay is based in Ames and is currently a senior majoring in journalism and marketing at Iowa State University. He has interned at New Century Press and contributed to the Iowa State Daily.