Legislators propose changes on traffic laws

In just over two years, New York State issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions to more than 620,000 drivers — a disproportionate number of them poor, people of color or both.

These suspensions were not the result of reckless or drunken driving, or other dangerous behavior; they were slapped on drivers who failed to pay a traffic ticket fine or show up for a court date over it.

These numbers come from an analysis released on Wednesday by Driven By Justice, a statewide coalition that worked with state Sen. Tim Kennedy on a bill to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid traffic tickets.

In April, Kennedy introduced his bill, which would end the practice and usher in a series of other reforms to help low-income drivers and their families.

Another bill, filed several weeks earlier by state Assemblyman Pat Burke, would bring more limited change. It would create payment plan options for people with traffic or parking tickets and allow for the possibility of a reduction on the administrative fees that often increase the cost of an infraction.

“In New York, our laws don’t make any allowances for poverty,” said Claudia Wilner, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice — one of the organizations leading the coalition, along with the Fines and Fees Justice Center and Bronx Defenders.

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Armed with data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the coalition created a set of maps showing where suspended drivers live.

Their findings? The poorer and less white a ZIP code is, the higher the rate of suspensions.

In the ZIP code 14211, which is centered around Genesee Street and Bailey Avenue on the East Side, there were 182 suspensions for every 1,000 people of driving age in 2016. In 14222, which encompasses much of the Elmwood Village, the rate was 21 suspensions per 1,000 people of driving age.

“It’s an uneven distribution of justice, or maybe, an uneven distribution of injustice,” said Pastor George Nicholas, who convenes the African American Health Disparities Task Force, a Buffalo group focused in part on traffic ticketing and a member of the Driven By Justice coalition.

“And you can’t tell me that people in the black community are just more prone to violate the laws,” he added.

A limited scope

In response to Investigative Post’s reporting, Burke, who represents South Buffalo, Lackawanna, Orchard Park and West Seneca, introduced a bill in early April to address issues facing low-income drivers who receive traffic and parking tickets.

In its first iteration, the bill would have allowed judicial hearing officers the flexibility to reduce fines and fees based on drivers’ ability to pay and create payment plan options.

“We’re trying to create flexibility in a rigid system that is ruining people’s lives,” Burke said in an interview. “We need to fix broken systems and flawed systems.”

The City of Buffalo requires drivers pay traffic fines and fees in one lump sum, forbidding partial payments. Several drivers told Investigative Post that policy meant they couldn’t pay anything at all, and so their driver’s licenses were suspended.

In fines, drivers described owing anywhere from $150 for a “reduced plea” on one traffic violation to $975 for seven violations. As for fees, Buffalo’s Common Council voted last year to create 13 fees on traffic tickets; they will add at least $100 to the cost of virtually every case, once fully in place.

The city has also stepped up its traffic enforcement, with Buffalo police increasing the number of tickets it gave: from around 32,000 in 2014 to more than 52,000 a year later.

Despite its relatively limited scope, Burke’s bill — termed the “Traffic Ticket Relief Act” — initiated criticism.

Some of Burke’s constituents argued that fines are meant as a deterrent and shouldn’t be reduced or that everyone should benefit from payment plans, not just those with lower incomes.

In response, Burke amended the bill to remove the possibility of flexibility on fines, leaving only fees open for reduction. The updated bill also would allow any New Yorker to arrange a payment plan.

A more comprehensive option

In late April, Tim Kennedy, who represents Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Lackawanna in the state Senate, introduced a wider-ranging and more detailed bill.

Chief among Kennedy’s proposed changes is to end the use of driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of traffic tickets.

“I’ve gotten very positive feedback from this. People recognize this is a matter of fairness and equity,” Kennedy, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Transportation, told Investigative Post.

“There’s an appetite in my conference to make the criminal justice system fair,” he added.

Where Burke’s amended bill would allow courts to reduce traffic fees on a “case by case basis,” Kennedy’s bill would allow courts to reduce or totally waive both fines and fees. Kennedy’s bill also contains a detailed provision that would allow all drivers to access “reasonable” payment plans, with costs linked to their monthly income.

The bill would make several other changes, including:

  • Reminding drivers who receive traffic tickets of their court dates.
  • Getting rid of the state’s $70 suspension lift fee; under current law, drivers must pay that fee — on every suspension on their license — before their privileges are restored.
  • Eliminating clauses that, based on number of suspensions for failure to pay or appear, increase the seriousness of a suspended driving charge.
  • Erasing suspensions related to unpaid traffic tickets from drivers’ records.

There is a strong connection between poverty and the number of traffic-debt suspensions lasting at least a year. Map from www.drivenbyjustice.org.

At least 41 states suspend drivers’ licenses for non-payment of traffic fines, but this is changing. In the last two years, several states, including California, Maine and Mississippi, have stopped issuing these types of suspensions.

Kennedy emphasized his bill would only end suspensions related to unpaid traffic tickets, and would not touch suspensions for other reasons, such as impaired or reckless driving. He hopes to bring the legislation to a vote in the next few weeks and has already found a sponsor in the state Assembly.

Burke is also hopeful his bill will pass, though as of last week, had not found a sponsor in the Senate.

Nicholas, of the African American Health Disparities Task Force, said his group is supportive of Kennedy’s bill, but that more action is needed to address the “root” of the problem: that City Hall is using traffic enforcement as a revenue generator.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the City of Buffalo expects to earn $3.3 million from traffic tickets.