'It's not America': 11 million go without a license because of unpaid fines

Activists see it as a new avenue of criminal justice reform.

Matt Holland works nights at a Denny’s in Florida, and his wife has to pick him up at the end of his shift at 1 a.m.

But his wife isn't the only one who has to make the trip -- their two children, ages 6 and 8, have to be woken up, even on school nights, and put in the car.

Holland wishes it wasn’t like this. He also wishes he could have kept his job as a plumber, where he was making $16 an hour rather than the $11 an hour he makes at Denny’s. That would have required him to drive to jobs, but his driver’s license is suspended because of unpaid fines and fees stemming from multiple traffic and criminal violations.

He is one of millions of people across the country whose license has been suspended as a result of unpaid court fines and fees.

"When you take away a person’s license, you kind of take away their ability to provide for their family in a certain type of way," Holland told ABC News.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a non-profit which focuses on this issue and is a part of the Free to Drive campaign, reports that 44 states and D.C. currently suspend, revoke or refuse to renew driver’s licenses over unpaid fees stemming from traffic tickets, or fines associated with misdemeanors or felonies.

But the number of states with these regulations has started to decrease in recent years as suspending licenses has started to be viewed as an unjust punishment by politicians and criminal justice advocates alike.

"It’s coming up because this is impacting so many people just the numbers are staggering and the number of places where this is a problem is staggering," said Joanna Weiss, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

One such staggering number is 11 million: that’s the number of people across the U.S. today that advocates estimate have a suspension in place on their driver’s licenses as a result of not paying fines or fees or missing a hearing date, Weiss said, though she noted that number is likely "a gross undercount" because of what she says are the shoddy reporting practices in certain states.

There are no official national figures for driver's license suspensions as a result of unpaid fines and fees, and some states provided varying amounts of information to the Free to Drive Campaign in their effort to determine a national estimate, while other states did not provide any data.

Driver's licenses can be suspended for a raft of non-driving-related factors such as failure to pay a fine, failure to pay child support, failure to maintain proper insurance, drug convictions and even truancy, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Even if fines are on the smaller side, they can spiral quickly, making them impossible to pay off for many, advocates say. Simple fines can turn into license suspensions or worse.

"For many people, they get a traffic ticket, they're on a limited budget, their choice is pay that traffic ticket or pay their rent, or their utilities or buy groceries or medicine, and so they chose the basic needs of their family first," Weiss said.

"There can be interest, the fines can double, there can be late fees and penalties -- that original amount that they were assessed can immediately go up and even double."

Weiss gave a hypothetical example of someone being given a $100 ticket for a broken tail light, which on its surface may be difficult for some but not as daunting for others.

"Then what happens is by not paying it, that fine doubles to $200, you still can’t pay it, you continue to drive, get pulled over get another ticket from driving on a suspended license, get a misdemeanor charge, and then there are additional fees associated with the misdemeanor charge," Weiss described. "Now you may owe a total of $1,000 which you may never be able to pay off, and you've lost your license, making it harder to be able to work.

"We’ve also inducted you into the criminal justice system for a traffic ticket that should never have gotten you involved in the criminal system to begin with, and that is why this is an example of criminalization of poverty."

That’s what Jahmani Kinch, a 28-year-old college student from Long Island, New York, says happened to him. He said his first fine came when he was 17 and driving a relative’s car. He told ABC News he was ticketed for not having insurance, the tail light being out and for not stopping at a stop sign.

That compounded into what he estimated was close to $3,000 in fines and fees. He also said that as a teen without a job, the fines and fees led to years of various traffic court appearances, more tickets, more fines and eventually a suspended license as a result of said unpaid fees.

"I was continually going to traffic court and paying what I could," he said, noting how all of the traffic tickets were for relatively minor issues, and "no speeding, no DUI, no DWI. This is not turning with a signal on, not stopping at a stop sign."

In addition to the traffic infractions as a teen, court records report that Kinch was charged with two cases of unlicensed driving last year in New York. In one, he was indicted on felony driving with a suspended license, but pleaded to a misdemeanor aggravated unlicensed driving charge, records show. He was sentenced to 20 days in jail and 2 years' probation. In the other case, he pleaded guilty to a count of aggravated unlicensed driving and received a $500 fine, according to the records.

Kinch, who co-parents his 2-year-old daughter and is paying for college, said that he was in shock over being sentenced to jail.

"I’ve never been to jail and you want to send me to jail for unpaid tickets?" he said.

Kinch described his time in jail as "horrific," saying that rather than starting the fall semester on time, he found himself in a situation he never expected.

Even after his time in jail, the fines persisted. Kinch says that he owes the New York State DMV about $2,600, has to pay the county probation department a $600 fine, and a $588 payment to the court. The roughly $3,788 he currently owes is more than the $2,500 he pays in tuition at Farmingdale State College every semester.

"Actually living it, it’s like ‘Is this real? Is this really happening right now?’" Kinch told ABC News.

Nusrat Choudhury, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, explained that while some may falsely assume that people are "thumbing their nose" at the system by not paying fines and fees, the issue is truly one of prioritization of funds.

"It doesn’t help communities to saddle people leaving prison and jail with debts they can’t pay, which then lead to license suspension which then prevent people even further from getting a job," Choudhury told ABC News.

"This isn’t about public safety. This is about depriving people of their livelihood in a system that is trying to raise revenue for jurisdictions across the country," she said.

She said that "for decades, state and local governments have been relying on the courts to raise revenue," and the extent of that was highlighted for many in 2015, when the Department of Justice released its investigation of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri.

The department had come under scrutiny in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, and among the scathing report’s findings was the conclusion that the city budgeted "for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved." It cited a specific instances where the city finance director urged the chief of police to generate more revenue through ticket writing.

The effort to eliminate the practice of suspending licenses has picked up in recent years, advocates say. The Free to Drive Campaign, which is advocating for reform, notes that in addition to the six states that do not suspend, revoke, or prohibit the renewal of driver's licenses for failure to pay, there are five other states where there have been partial or temporary reforms.

One of those temporary fixes came in Virginia, where the governor inserted language into the budget, stopping the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees and putting money towards the reinstatement fees for those suspended.

The bill, which was ultimately killed in the state legislature but worked into the state budget, was introduced by Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley, who said that he saw the damage that was being done up close when he represented people who faced staggering fines that led to suspended licenses.

"I would get these cases over and over again," Stanley told ABC News.

Stanley said that one in six Virginia drivers had their licenses suspended for not paying fines. "That’s crazy," he said.

Stanley, who works full time as an attorney, said that in some small communities, he had worked with clients who were targeted by local law enforcement because they knew that the individuals were driving on suspended licenses to get to work.

"I had one client who got pulled over three times in the span of two weeks by the same sheriff’s deputy who would just sit on the corner and wait for them to go to work, and that’s just not fair," Stanley said.

In other instances, he knew of people who eventually lost or quit their jobs "so that they wouldn’t get arrested anymore, and then [they’re] just depending on the government" for assistance, he said.

"For my Republican friends, I said ‘This is all about freedom and smaller government, independency and not dependency,’" Stanley said. "This needs to be nationwide, that we stop this terrible practice of burdensome tax collection."

"These are mothers and fathers, not criminals, who just because they couldn’t pay a fine, have a right taken from them and now have to live in the shadows and that’s just not fair, it’s not America," he said.

"It’s not a partisan issue, it’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s a human issue. It’s ‘what is the responsibility of a government to its people?’ And that’s where I think it crosses all party lines," he added.

While Stanley is advocating for change on the state level, Matt Holland, who is now 32, hopes to eventually become a lawyer and advocate for others in similar situations to himself.

His fines started as a result of burglary charges he incurred when he was 18 years old. When he left prison after 3 1/2 years, he said that he had a lien on his license and owed $4,500 in court fees. Over the years, his license was suspended and he "started paying towards" the debts. Eventually, though, he "just started driving on my own," was written up for driving on a suspended license and was convicted of other charges including a subsequent drug possession charge which landed him back behind bars for 18 months.

His various charges and subsequent fees and fines have increased astronomically and he estimates that he now he owes about $6,600.

"This has been over 10 years now. My life would be a lot further" without these debts, Holland told ABC News.

Holland says that the system needs reform because it doesn’t encourage reform from individuals who feel they are facing insurmountable obstacles to truly be free.

"It doesn’t take away from the fact that yes, I did crimes, and I have broken the law, but I’ve made changes now."