Minnesota has a tremendous opportunity to end the unwise and unnecessary practice of suspending an individual’s driver’s license because of an unpaid traffic ticket. House File 1061/Senate File 1376 has bipartisan authors and support. If enacted, more than 50,000 Minnesotans would have their driver’s licenses restored, and tens of thousands of people per year will avoid a license suspension.
HF 1061 doesn’t change driver’s license suspensions for dangerous driving violations, such as DUI or reckless driving. It also leaves in place the collections process for all unpaid traffic tickets, so people are held accountable for the cost of their ticket. But it allows people with no violations other than unpaid traffic tickets to continue driving legally while they pay off their debt to the court.
In 2017, the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office handled 855 cases involving driving-after-suspension cases. And 527 cases were referred to a diversion program that helps individuals have their driver’s license reinstated if it was suspended due to unpaid citations.
When states take away driver’s licenses for an offense unrelated to dangerous driving, it neither enhances nor contributes to public safety. In fact, stripping an individual of their driver’s license makes it substantially more difficult for that person to travel to work, earn a living, attend school, or go to a job interview. It provides an additional hurdle for someone trying to pay an outstanding traffic-related fee.
Here’s a real-life example of how an unpaid ticket can snowball into a significant problem, when there are better ways to handle the situation. In 2014, Leah Jackson from Otsego was ticketed for obstructing traffic after waiting in an intersection as the light turned red, trying to make a left turn. She had just started a new job and hadn’t received a paycheck yet, so she put off paying the $135 ticket.
A few months later, Jackson was pulled over, told her driver’s license was suspended for an unpaid ticket, and cited for driving on a suspended license – a new $287 ticket. Her job responsibilities as a retail store manager required her to make bank runs and other deliveries, so she kept driving in order to keep her job. Within a few weeks, she received two more tickets for driving after suspension, and her ticket debt now totaled nearly $1000. Jackson used her tax refund to pay the tickets and thought the worst was over – but it wasn’t.
Many auto insurance companies treat a driving after suspension harshly, so the cheapest insurance she could find was $650 per month. Now, more than four years later, Jackson estimates that the increased insurance costs, in addition to the traffic fines, bring her total expense from that first traffic ticket to over $16,000. Under the new legislation, an unpaid traffic ticket would accrue late fees and be sent to collections, but wouldn’t trigger a driver’s license suspension, so someone in Jackson’s position could continue driving legally while they paid off the cost of their ticket.
HF 1061 is consistent with several principles outlined in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving and would relieve Minnesotans from having their driver’s license suspended for reasons that do not contribute to improving public safety.
Several states have taken on this issue and examples of this positive trend can be found throughout the U.S. Last year, both Maine and Michigan enacted legislation that prevented the suspension of a driver’s license if the individual is unable to pay his or her court debt.
More states considering legislation
This year more states are considering changing their laws on driver’s license suspensions. Legislation introduced in Montana and New Jersey would limit the use of driver’s license suspensions in certain instances where the underlying offense does not involve dangerous driving.
States are recognizing that driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines inhibit individuals from being productive members of society. This trend is likely to continue as states make improvements to their laws on fines and fees and recognize that driver’s license suspensions should be reserved for offenses related to dangerous driving.
Minnesota’s proposed solution shows that in a time of polarized politics and partisanship, both sides can work toward a common goal of better policy outcomes for all Minnesotans.
Ronald J. Lampard is the Criminal Justice Task Force Director at ALEC Action, the 501c4 affiliate of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
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