ANOTHER VIEW: Don’t take away drivers’ licenses for being poor

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

More than 2 million Floridians — or about 1 in 8 drivers — have suspended licenses, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy group.

The vast majority of these licenses were suspended for reasons unrelated to dangerous driving, mostly due to unpaid traffic fines and fees owed to the court system.

Six states have changed their laws in recent years to stop suspending driver’s licenses due to unpaid fines and fees. In one of those states, California, collections of unpaid fines and fees actually increased nearly 9% in the year after the policy was enacted.

Florida is among a handful of states now considering similar legislation. CS/SB 1328 and CS/HB 903 would require all clerks of court to work with people who have unpaid debt on payment plans and provide a grace period before revoking their driver’s licenses, while also giving courts the authority to waive or modify fees if someone is unable to pay.

Florida is already struggling with the implementation of Amendment 4, which voters expected would automatically restore the voting rights of most former felons. But implementing legislation approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature requires that former felons first repay their financial obligations to the courts before their voting rights are restored.

Charging people for the right to vote is bad enough, but the state also penalizes people with unpaid debts with license suspensions. Failure to pay child support payments can also result in a driver’s license suspension, while failing to repay a government-backed student loan can result in a health practitioner’s occupational license being suspended.

A measure that would end the latter practice passed the Legislature this session and awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. Lawmakers should do the same with the suspension of driver’s licenses, or at least pass the legislation that allows new options for repayment and forgiveness for unpaid fines and fees.

Nearly 20,824 drivers in Bay County had suspended driver’s licenses as of Oct. 7, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. About 83% of the suspension notices issued in the county in 2017 were for unpaid fines and fees.

On top of all that, any hope of someone paying the fine, attempting to catch up on child support, etc., is dealt a costly blow with the loss of a driver’s license. The punishment hits far more people than the license holder, who becomes unable not just to drive to a job, but to take children to school or doctors, or go to the store.

It also opens the door to a molehill turning into a mountain, as a look at court records can show. Those with a suspended license are apt to drive anyway and sometimes with good intent - like getting to a job. But a traffic stop turns into another crime, the person who couldn’t pay the first fine is now saddled with two and it can tumble out of control.

This editorial, which originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun, was modified.