A changing tide on license suspensions

New York is one of at least 41 states that suspend drivers’ licenses if they fail to pay traffic fines.

In 2016, the state Department of Motor Vehicles issued 53,648 suspension or revocation orders to drivers in Erie County, according to data obtained Investigative Post. This captures suspensions issued for any reason, but experts said the vast majority are related to traffic tickets.

“Suspending a license is a patently absurd remedy to someone who can’t pay traffic tickets,” Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a civil rights law firm based in Missouri, told Investigative Post.

New York’s practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fines has particular relevance in Buffalo.

The city in 2015 obtained permission to keep most of the revenue generated from traffic tickets. Police began issuing many more tickets, which in turn increased City Hall’s revenue. To raise more money, the Common Council last year approved 13 new fees that, once fully implemented, will add $100 to almost all tickets.

City Hall cashing in on traffic tickets

A lot of traffic enforcement has been concentrated in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods, where residents described having difficulty paying tickets. Indeed, Buffalo has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation among mid-sized cities.

In New York, a recently-formed coalition of several organizations, including the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Bronx Defenders and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice has began advocating for the end of suspensions over unpaid traffic fines.

Some states are moving away from the practice altogether. Advocates have sought the end of suspensions for failure to pay fines, as opposed to unsafe driving.

In 2017, California became one of the first to do so, with Gov. Jerry Brown signing a bill ending suspensions over unpaid traffic fines. Eventually, anyone whose license was suspended for that reason was reinstated.

Legislators were initially indifferent to making change, recalled Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We sort of got laughed out of the building,” said Della-Piana, referring to early efforts to discuss debt-related suspensions with legislators.

Their reluctance prompted a coalition to put together a report showing more than 4 million Californians were suspended at the time over unpaid traffic fines.

In 2018, Tennessee made a similar change. This time, it came from a class-action lawsuit that argued suspensions over unpaid tickets violated drivers’ due process rights.

A U.S. district judge ruled these types of suspensions had caused “constitutional and material injuries” to poor Tennesseans that were likely “irreparable.”

“Suspending the driver’s license of an indigent person because he has failed to pay his traffic debt is not only wholly ineffective, but powerfully counterproductive,” she concluded.

The verdict could affect nearly 300,000 Tennesseans.

Our Weekly Newsletter

“You’re just reducing people’s ability to earn and work, pay taxes, contribute to the society and their communities in a healthy way,” said Claudia Wilner, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice who worked on the Tennessee case.

Wilner is also one of the attorneys representing Black Love Resists in the Rust, an organization in Buffalo that is suing the city for what it describes as a “systemic practice” of targeting black and Latino drivers for revenue generation.

One of the plaintiffs in that case, a 27-year-old mother of three, had her learner’s permit suspended after she was unable to pay $896 in traffic fines and a state-mandated surcharge. She requested a payment plan from the city and was denied. About a year later, she used her tax refund to pay the fines and reinstate her permit.

In the last two years, other jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., Maine, and Mississippi, have stopped suspensions for traffic debts. Legal challenges are pending in at least four other states.

Many point to Ferguson, Mo., as a catalyst for these changes. Following the 2014 fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the city’s police force. The Justice Department found that minor violations, mostly levied against black residents, could lead to “crippling debts” and license suspensions.

City officials had directed police to raise revenues through traffic and municipal code enforcement, the report found, and officers often issued numerous tickets on a single stop.

“That’s the sort of smaller, very serious injustices, that leads to a tearing of the community fabric,” said Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, which sued Ferguson over its policy of jailing people who could not pay debts.