Thursday 2 February 2023
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Traffic-ticket debt can cost low-income drivers their license

Patti Singer

Traffic debt — the failure to pay a ticket or failure to answer the summons in court — can cost you your driver’s license. Advocates for the poor say they face the brunt of New York laws that don’t offer payment plans. File photo

Like a lot of drivers, Ashley Gantt got pulled over. She ended up with two traffic tickets.

At the time, she was 18, living on her own and working a minimum-wage job. She remembered the tickets totaled about $600, an amount she didn’t have.

“Being young and 18, I didn’t think twice about it,” she said. “What I knew right then and there was I didn’t have it. I also didn’t have a car. So there wasn’t an emergency to try to figure it out.”

What she didn’t know was that failing to pay the tickets caused her license to be suspended. So when she was stopped a few years later, she said she ended up with 15 days in the Monroe County jail for driving on a suspended license. When she told people why she was there, she said they didn’t believe it. As of 2015, approximately 218 million people had driver’s licenses in the United States.

When she was 24 and needed to get a car for work and family, she found out her license still was suspended and she owed $1,800 in fines, mandatory surcharges and late fees on tickets issued in four traffic stops over the years.

Gantt borrowed the money from a close friend. “It was by the skin of my chin luck,” she said. “So many people don’t have that opportunity.”

Failing to pay traffic tickets or failing to appear in court on a traffic violation are leading reasons why drivers have their license suspended, according to the study “Opportunity Suspended: How New York’s Traffic Debt Suspension Laws Disproportionately Harm Low-Income Communities and Communities of Color.”

The study came from Driven by Justice Coalition, co-founded by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which has a project in New York.

The coalition – made up of grassroots, economic justice, and civil rights organizations, public defenders, and people affected by traffic debt – is working to end what its members said is unfair and discriminatory practice of suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets in New York State.

Ashley Gantt had her license suspended
because she wasn’t able
to pay fines.
Photo by David Greenwald

The coalition said that New York does not allow for reduced, waived or deferred payment, a payment plan or an alternative to payment such as community service.

The coalition seeks to end driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of traffic tickets and for not appearing at a traffic hearing; to reinstate all driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay or appear; and to institute affordable payment plans.

The coalition was behind introduction of a bill in the state Senate and Assembly. The legislation is moving through committees. As of June 13, the proposal was not yet eligible for a floor vote in either chamber and the session ends June 19.

Why don’t they just pay?

Katie Adamides, New York State director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said there is a perception that people willfully shrug off the ticket. That may happen, but in those instances she said civil judgments can be applied to recoup the money.

She maintained that most people who aren’t paying their tickets can’t afford to.

“The problem is that we have a real issue with criminalizing poverty with driver license suspensions,” she said . “It is rampant.”

Fines and Fees Justice Center heard of laws in other states that were written with only willful scofflaws in mind. The authors of those bills said they hadn’t considered the plight of people who couldn’t pay a fine.

“That’s how these laws got made,” she said. “People thought it would be a good idea… because clearly if you’re not paying it’s because you didn’t feel like it.”

Adamides said that Mississippi, California, Idaho, Montana, Virginia and the District of Columbia have stopped suspending driver’s licenses because of traffic debt.

Gantt, statewide organizer for JustLeadership USA, said she has lobbied state representatives to end the suspensions for traffic debt. She said one legislator, whom she declined to name, responded, “’ They just need to pay their tickets.’ I said, do you think people want to walk around in debt. Do you think people want to walk around with their license suspended?”

Between a rock and a hard place

Adamides said that two-thirds of suspensions in the state are for traffic debt. “If you don’t appear you can get a suspension.,” she said. “You can also get a suspension from not paying. If I don’t have the money to pay, I’m probably not answering or appearing.”

Timothy Donaher, Monroe County Public Defender, said that in 2018, his office handled more than 2,000 cases of aggravated unlicensed operation.

“We see this over and over and over again,” said Donaher. “What we normally see is the person that gets that initial license suspension for nonpayment of a fine, and then it cascades.”

The person can be charged with aggravated unlicensed operation, which carries its own fine. The Department of Motor Vehicles also levies fines against scofflaws. “That’s how the initial fine can grow from whatever it was into $400, $500, $600 very quickly,” Donaher said.

Studies over the past few years have reported that from 40 percent to 60 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Opportunity Suspended stated that nearly half of suspensions issued in 2016 were in effect a year later. In the 13120 ZIP code in Syracuse, 71.3% percent of suspensions were in effect one year later. The average for the state was around 50%.

Selected data

In 2016, the year analyzed for the Opportunity Suspended report, New York issued 43 traffic debt suspensions for every 1,000 people of driving age. But some parts of the state had higher rates.

Some examples from the report:

  • In the 13205 ZIP code in Syracuse, the rate was 104 per 1,000.
  • In the 14611 ZIP code of Rochester, the rate was 335 per 1,000. In raw numbers, there were 4,168 traffic debt suspensions among 12,442 people of driving age, or more than one traffic debt suspension for every three people.
  • The report stated that the suspension rate in the 10 poorest ZIP codes in the state is nearly nine times higher than the suspension rate in the 10 wealthiest ZIPs.
  • In the 14534 ZIP code in Monroe County, the rate was 12 traffic debt suspensions per 1,000. The rate was 22 per 1,000 in the 14618 ZIP. That rate was 15 times less than in 14611.
  • The report stated that “suspensions impact communities of color regardless of the poverty level and that suspensions also affect high-poverty white communities.”
  • According to the report, ZIP code 14608 had 2,441 traffic debt suspensions in 2016, for a rate of 266 per 1,000. In that ZIP, 76.3% of the driving-age population are people of color and 40% of the driving-age population live below the federal poverty level.

Safety issue, too

According to the report, people affected by traffic debt face a choice: Either stop driving, which means losing access to work, health care, food and other basic necessities, or keep driving and risk criminal charges and more fines and fees.

Adamides said tying suspensions to traffic debt doesn’t make the roads safer. She said the points system disciplines bad drivers.

“That’s not what this is doing,” she said of tying suspensions to traffic debt. “What this is doing is putting people in the position where if they drive, they’re driving uninsured. They’re driving against the law. Not because they were dangerous, but because they were poor.”

Adamides said the practice also ties up police and the courts.

“If we really value public safety and equity, then we need to abolish the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for traffic debt,” she said. “We have other accountability measures in place. We don’t need this extra punitive measure that disproportionately affects low income people and people of color.”