“We’re not looking to let anyone skate from the rules of the road, but a traffic ticket shouldn’t ruin anybody’s life,” says Patrick Burke.
Burke, a member of the New York State Assembly, has proposed legislation that would help ease the burden for drivers who face the loss of their license if they can’t pay traffic fines.
If it’s passed, his “Traffic Ticket Relief Act” would make New York one of a growing number of states aiming for a radical overhaul of the court fines and administrative fees that advocates say are distorting the justice system and disproportionately affect the poor.
The act would give judges leeway to reduce some traffic fines for people who have an inability to pay — whether due to lack of funds or a significant life event — and allow drivers to pay their fines in installments.
Under current state law, non-payment of non-criminal traffic-related fines and fees — typically due within weeks after conviction — results in an automatic driver’s license suspension. Courts are generally not allowed to take into consideration a driver’s ability to pay the fine or offer installment plans.
Organizations like the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York City argue that rigid application of traffic fines and other court costs effectively amount to a double penalty. If an individual loses the ability to drive because of her inability to come up with the fine, she faces spiraling consequences ranging from losing her job to reducing the quality of family life.
In worst-case scenarios, non-payment of fines – which continue to escalate—could lander her in prison.
The system “criminalizes” poverty, advocates say.
“A simple traffic ticket can cost hundreds of dollars,” Fines and Fees Justice Center co-directors Lisa Foster and Joanna Weiss wrote in a recent op-ed.
“When someone is unable to pay a fine, New York law allows courts to coerce payment by suspending their driver’s license, a practice that makes it virtually impossible for impacted New Yorkers to keep their jobs and pay their fines and fees.”
It’s a topic that unites advocacy groups from across the ideological spectrum, with both the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council pushing for reforms that would eliminate debt-based drivers’ license suspensions.
According to Burke, a Democrat who represents a Buffalo, N.Y.-area district, his proposal would affect more than just low-income individuals.
“There are all sorts of circumstances where you might not be able to pay a ticket right away,” he said. “And if you don’t, you get hit with other fines that you don’t have the ability to pay and that all racks up; then they take your license and you have to pay more to get your license back.”
A 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights notes that across the country, the primary reason for drivers’ license suspensions is nonpayment of court fines and fees — not safety-related convictions.
And, the report says, rather than spurring more people to actually pay those fees, license suspension gravely affects a person’s ability to work and usurps vital law enforcement resources that could otherwise be deployed toward proactive highway safety activities.
New York Assemblywoman Jaime Romeo (D-Irondequoit), said it’s also time for lawmakers to start talking about the “severe unintended consequences” current laws surrounding traffic infraction fines can have on struggling families.
Impact on Families
“There have been some conversations about why would one driver pay a lower fine than another, but what does need to be considered is the impact on a person’s finances, not necessarily the dollar amount, but the financial impact on a family,” she said.
Add in automatic drivers’ license suspension for non-payment of fines, and the consequences can be devastating.
“There’s a fair amount of people here totally reliant on their vehicles, their drivers’ licenses, for access to health care, jobs, education,” said Romeo.
A speeding ticket in New York State can incur fines that range between $90 and $600, depending on how fast you’re driving. On top of that, there’s a $93 moving violation surcharge in a town or village court or an $88 surcharge in a city court.
That means a person nabbed for driving up to 10 miles over the posted speed limit can owe up to $243 for a single ticket. Drive more than 30 mph over the posted limit, and that fine plus surcharge can top out at $693 for a single ticket.
For someone working a full-time minimum wage job, that $243 ticket eats up more than half a week’s wages. For the typical American family of four, that’s about half a month’s worth of groceries.
End of the Road: 30-day Term
Then, if a driver loses his license for non-payment, keeps driving, and ends up ticketed for driving with a suspended license, that can result in another fine of up to $500, plus the court surcharge and possible imprisonment of up to 30 days.
If that person gets caught driving again, there’s a minimum fine of $500, the court surcharge and mandatory imprisonment of up to 180 days or probation.
State data shows vehicle and traffic violation fines, fees and surcharges can be a significant revenue source for cash-strapped municipalities.
The principle hurdle to changing the system is the threat that cash-strapped municipalities and counties around the U.S. will lose what has become an important source of revenue.
In 2017, municipal justice courts in New York collected more than $249 million in drivers’ fines, with about 45 percent of that money staying in local government coffers, 3 percent going to counties and 52 percent going to the state.
According to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, 490,000 people held operator drivers’ licenses in Monroe County in upstate New York in 2017. Of those, more than 11,400 were suspended. And the largest numbers of suspensions correspond to some of the county’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
More than 40 states currently suspend drivers’ licenses for outstanding court debt. Last month, Virginia joined states like Ohio and Maine in outlawing the practice.
Automatic license suspension for failure to pay was found unconstitutional in Tennessee last year. According to the federal judge issuing the ruling, “taking an individual’s driver’s license away to try to make her more likely to pay a fine is not using a shotgun to do the job of a rifle: it is using a shotgun to treat a broken arm.”
And a February U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Eighth Amendment ban on “excessive fines” applies to states could open New York up to a court challenge on the license suspension issue, especially as the state currently prohibits courts from considering a person’s wealth before adding mandatory surcharges to every single conviction.
Romeo makes clear that opponents of the current system aren’t arguing for measures that would give drivers a “pass’ for endangering public safety, but that it’s time to reconsider how courts collect traffic fines.
Making reasonable payment plans available that wouldn’t place an undue burden on municipal courts can balance the needs of both traffic safety and fair justice, say defenders of the bill.
Meaghan McDermott, a staff writer at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story written for her fellowship project. Read the full version here. Connect with Meaghan at MCDERMOT@Gannett.com