Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Editorial Advisory Board: Suspending driver’s licenses for overdue child support

In Maryland — as with the majority of states — residents with child support orders who are in arrears with mandated child support risk a suspension of their driver’s license.  Codified in Family Law Article Sec. 10-119 with interlocking Transportation Sections 16-203 and 16-208, a child support obligor may have their driver’s license suspended–perhaps indefinitely.

A bill in the General Assembly (HB 580/SB 403) –introduced by Del. Debra Davis, D-Charles, seeks to repeal those provisions, with recent amendments that put a floor of 300% of the federal poverty level (about $40,000 annual income). Below that line, the system of suspending driver’s licenses for overdue child support would not apply.

While we cannot endorse a full repeal, we do support a limited drivers’ license suspension process for arrearages in child support. Also, we are concerned with the racial and economic disparities in enforcing these statutory provisions. As Davis said in her statement for the hearing on this bill, the system “criminalizes poverty” and sets up a version of debtors’ prison.

The current process involves the Child Support Administration, a division of the Department of Human Services and the Motor Vehicle Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation. If a child support obligor is 60 or more days out of compliance with the mandated child support payments — either through a court order or any other legal means (such as a divorce settlement) — the obligor is notified by the CSA of the intended action on his/her driver’s license.

Then the obligor can request an “investigation” by the CSA focused on whether the intended action is accurate, whether suspension would be an impediment to current or potential employment, or whether the suspension would be a hardship due to a documented disability. But, according to the testimony for Maryland Legal Aid, that “investigation” is pro forma. The CSA’s “investigative” findings can be appealed to the Office of Administrative Hearings — but few obligors are legally represented and cannot navigate that appeal procedure.

As well, the CSA may reach an agreement with the obligor for a gradual payment of arrearages and if the obligor is meeting those additional payments, then CSA may delay any action. However, if an agreement is not reached, and the CSA investigation (or any appeal to the OAH) shows no reason to delay or defer the agency action, the CSA forwards the relevant information to the MVA, and thus, the child support obligor driver’s license automatically is suspended — with the proviso that suspension, in certain cases, can be restricted to nonemployment driving. Or the driver’s license can be reinstated upon a showing by the obligor that child support is now current.

To boot, driving with a suspended license subjects the driver with arrest, and upon conviction, that driver is faced with up to one year incarceration or $1,000 fine (or both) and adds 12 points to any driver’s license.

Alarming numbers

Testimony and statements from supporters of the bill, such as Maryland Legal Aid, Public Justice Center and Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF) lists racial and economic disparities with the current system — as Davis points out. The figures are concerning.

For example, according to the JOTF, in 2015, National Public Radio reported that 62% of Marylanders who owe child support makes less than minimum wage, but owe at least $10,000 in unpaid arrearages. Although African Americans make up 31% of Maryland population, the Department of Transportation data suggests that that population makes up 71% of license suspensions.

According to the fiscal and policy notes for HB 580, “In fiscal 2020, MVA suspended approximately 14,800 licenses due to child support noncompliance.” If that figure is comparable annually, the current suspension system is not a small matter. Moreover, Federal law (42 USC Sec. 666) mandates that states have in place a system that allows that state the authority to withhold, suspend or restrict driver’s licenses of child support obligors. However, that mandate could only apply in “appropriate” cases, leaving a small window to adjust that system.

And this is in addition to parallel means of enforcing child support payments at the State level—i.e., wage garnishments. But the class of wage garnishments falls most often on persons at or near the poverty level, and can subject the same class of people to multiple driver’s license suspension in a single year.

The JOTF points out that only 9% of jobs in the Baltimore region can be reached within one hour, one way, using public transportation. “This statistic is more pronounced for lower-income communities of color where there is a scarcity of jobs available by public transit.” Thus, having a vehicle for employment is crucial. JOTF submits that “Suspending licenses for lower-income obligors run counter to the purposes of increasing child support compliance.” Maryland Legal Aid suggests that driver’s license suspension for unpaid child support should only be imposed on a case-by-case basis.

At present, the bill — with amendments — is stalled in both House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Yet, the JOTF statistics are worrisome — thus, the racial and economic disparities in the current automatic suspension system warrant further examination.

Editorial Advisory Board members Arthur F. Fergenson and Leigh Goodmark did not participate in this opinion.

 

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Andre M. Davis

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.