On the surface, it seems kind of counterproductive for New York to issue fines for traffic infractions, then allow drivers to keep their licenses if they don’t pay up.
But suspending someone’s license over their inability to pay a fine has unintended consequences, especially for poorer New Yorkers, that actually hurt the state and the individual drivers more than the suspension of the driver’s license helps.
It’s not a small issue in New York.
Between January 2016 and April 2018, the state issued nearly 1.7 million license suspensions for the sole reason of traffic debt.
That’s almost 9 percent of the entire state population who can’t legally drive to work to support themselves or their families, who can’t drive to stores or to daycare or to doctor’s appointments.
If the drivers ignore the license suspensions and continue to drive without a license, they risk arrest and criminal penalties, including more fines and even jail time. That, in turn, has the potential to further negatively impact their lives and put them in a vicious circle of unpaid debt to the state - all for not paying a traffic ticket.
Like many sanctions, license suspensions disproportionately affect the poor, Blacks and Latinos. So there is a racism and economic element attached to the suspension penalty.
From a practical standpoint, the state spends a lot of time and effort trying to collect fines, efforts that could be put to more effective use going after real criminals and getting truly dangerous drivers off the road.
And even when the state does suspend a motorist’s driver’s license, the suspension doesn’t seem to be much of an incentive for most individuals to pay the overdue fines anyway. If the punishment is ineffective, then what’s the point of having one?
Since the driver with the overdue traffic fine isn’t considered a danger on the road, suspending someone’s license for nonpayment of fines doesn’t even make our roads safer.
All those reasons are why the state Legislature last month passed a bill (A7463B/S5348B) that would end the suspension of licenses for traffic debt, allow motorists to enter into affordable payment plans reflective of their income (2% of a person’s monthly income or $10 per month, whichever is greater), and would reinstate the licenses of drivers currently under suspension for nonpayment of traffic debt.
The legislation does not affect the other reasons why the state suspends driver’s licenses - suspension upon arrest for driving while intoxicated or vehicular homicide, failure to pay child support or failure to pay the driver responsibility assessment (a fee assessed over a three-year period for conviction of certain traffic offenses such as DWI or the accumulation of at least 6 points on your driving record within 18 months).
So dangerous drivers and habitual offenders would not escape penalty.
New York is not the first state to rethink suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines. In just the past three years, nine states have passed similar legislation. And the bill has the support of several organizations, including the Fiscal Policy Institute and the New York Civil Liberties Union, among others.
This legislation won’t hurt the state budget or impact our taxes. But it will help poorer New Yorkers keep their jobs and take care of their families, eliminate some of the burden on the state’s court system, and keep people in poverty from falling further into debt.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo should sign the bill at his earliest convenience.