In many parts of the country, Americans are almost entirely reliant upon their ability to drive in order to commute to school and work. Although there are options for individuals who are unable to drive, including rideshare apps and public transportation, these options can range from expensive to too inconvenient to use effectively. This is one reason why roughly 17 million cars and light trucks were sold in the United States within 2018 alone. The unfortunate reality is that for many people their ability to maintain jobs is handicapped when they are unable to drive legally. This is why it is extremely significant that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that will end a controversial penalty for the failure to pay off a traffic ticket.
Until New Year’s Eve 2020, New York State residents often had their driver’s licenses suspended after they failed to pay parking tickets. Although NY was not the only state that instituted this penalty, it was certainly a much-debated penalty due to its association with economic and racial injustice. Not only will the law end the penalty itself; it will also lead to the reinstatement of thousands of suspended driver’s licenses across the state. Many of the individuals who lost their driving privileges did so not because they simply refused to pay their traffic tickets, but because they could not afford to pay them.
A major issue regarding the suspension of driver’s licenses is that they caused individuals who were already experiencing poverty to suffer more. After being unable to pay their traffic tickets, presumably due to poverty, they were then unable to drive due to suspended driver’s licenses. This made it difficult or impossible for them to go to work and take their children to school, leading not only the drivers but their families in general to suffer the consequences. In order to avoid losing their jobs, some drivers chose to simply drive with suspended driver’s licenses. This resulted in further fines, eventually resulting in mounting fees and in some cases even jail time.
Therefore, many of those pushing for the changing of the laws were racial and economic justice advocates, including Katie Adamides, New York State director at the fines and fees justice center. Additionally, Senator Timothy Kennedy and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter sponsored the new law. At the same time, some would argue that the law itself is not enough to prevent and circumvent the entrenchment of systemic poverty in New York State. This is in part due to the fact that Cuomo chose to remove a key component of the legislation before signing it into law.
Understanding the Economic and Racial Issues Behind License Suspension Laws
There is a reason why laws penalizing individuals for failing to pay their traffic tickets exist. They are connected to the reasons why traffic tickets and similar fees exist. Following the 2008 recession, a wave of austerity followed and impacted New York State on a major financial level. Part of the issue was that local tax revenues gradually dropped. Tax increases became more difficult to pass on a political level. At the same time, the government still needed revenue in order to fund infrastructure and government services.
Therefore, the revenue involved need to be recouped in some way. The only viable alternative seemed to be through fees. However, these fees were not instituted in a way that took into consideration the incomes and economic statuses of the individuals being fined. As such, an individual with an income of $20,000 per year could be fined the same amount of money as an individual who makes $80,000 per year, regardless of the offense. Furthermore, cities with larger Black populations tend to rely more on fees to fund the government as opposed to cities that are predominantly white.
Part of the reason why cities with largely Black populations have higher rates of penalties is that it is often more common for police officers instituting these fines to racially profile people of color. A major example of this phenomenon can be seen in Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown was infamously killed by a police officer. Although Ferguson was a predominantly Black city, most of its police force was made up of white officers. Therefore, they were more likely to fine Black residents, which meant that these residents inevitably became responsible for many of the government services and infrastructure in their communities.
In part due to outrage over the racial and economic justice issues surrounding these fines, 10 other states had already ended their driver’s license suspension penalties for individuals that had failed to pay traffic tickets. These states include Hawaii, Virginia, and Oregon. But unlike other states, New York already did have an advantage in that it did not suspend driver’s licenses over fines and fees related to criminal convictions.
The Limitations of the New Law
Unfortunately, the new law is not without its limitations. In the original legislature, the bill also would have ended the driver’s license suspensions for individuals who failed to appear in court for traffic hearings. Quite often, people fail to appear in court for the same reasons that they fail to pay their traffic tickets. The governor’s office requested a chapter amendment that removed this provision, an issue that many economic and racial justice advocates object to.
There is an appeals process that was put in place for these individuals. They will have a 90-day grace period before their license is officially suspended, during which they can appeal the suspension. This can be compared to the law in California, where drivers have 10 days, the day of arrest included, to request a hearing by calling the local driver’s safety office. The issue is that many people still are not necessarily able to move through and afford the process involved with defending their non-payment. At times, this too could require the involvement of an attorney.
In order to prevent people from failing to pay their traffic tickets, they must first be able to afford to pay their traffic tickets. As lots of people lose jobs after having their licenses suspended, or for that matter when attempting to pay bail without a bail bond agency acting as surety for their bail, the system currently operating only entrenches them further in poverty. Although the new law institutes a good chance, it is understandable why there are critiques of its current functionality.