Pennsylvania is weighing bipartisan legislation that would give drivers the option of community service if they are unable to pay the fines and court fees for traffic violations, and end what many call a “catch 22.”
In December 2019, state Sen. Pat Stefano, a Republican, and Jay Costa, Jr., a Democrat, announced their intent to introduce legislation reforming driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic violations. The legislation would include a “community service” option.
A companion bill, House Bill 80, introduced in July by State Rep. Jake Wheatley, would also offer community service as part of a one-year driver’s license amnesty program for people who have their license suspended for failure to pay or failure to respond to a traffic citation.
The program would still require individuals to pay the fines, fees and penalties for the original offense but would provide amnesty from subsequent suspensions resulting from driving with a suspended license.
Pennsylvania state law requires the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation [PennDOT] to automatically suspend a resident’s license for not paying or responding to a traffic citation — even for offenses that don’t otherwise warrant a suspension, like running a stop sign.
The practice creates a catch-22: not paying one’s fines results in a suspended license, making it harder to work and pay the fines that caused the suspension.
According to PennDOT, 376,000 drivers have their license suspended for failure to pay or respond.
Some judges have interpreted Pennsylvania traffic law to mean that community service is not an option in traffic cases. But the legislation would allow for alternatives to payment, including community service.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto endorsed the bill in December 2019.
Bill 80 also has the support of State Rep. Mike Carroll, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, who says the suspensions are the state’s way of forcing a person to settle their traffic charges.
“If you run the stop sign and you can just ignore it without any consequence, I would suspect a lot of people would ignore it,” said Carroll.
Republican State Rep. Todd Stephens is skeptical about an amnesty program.
“I worry that the message we would be sending would be that, if you go ahead and ignore the citations, someday they’ll just go away,” he said.
“That being said, I think we need to find a way for people to get out of the perpetual cycle of suspensions so that they can be gainfully employed.”
Stephens suggests considering the use of community service to pay off traffic violations or making it easier to obtain an occupational limited license.
Pittsburgh Magisterial District Judge Richard King said the law needs to be revamped so that those found guilty of an offense are still held accountable but can get to work.
“What if there’s some young guy working in Pittsburgh at the cracker?” he said, referring to Shell’s ethane cracker plant being built in Beaver County.
“You can’t take a bus to the cracker.”
Suspended Since 2017
The proposed legislation would help people like Derrick Macon Jr.
In December 2019, Macon. was in Pittsburgh Municipal Traffic Court for one reason: to get his driver’s license back. It had been suspended since 2017 for not responding to citations for running a red light and driving without proof of insurance, both from 2016.
The charges amounted to more than $650 in fines and fees, an amount Macon said he couldn’t pay.
In August 2017, a police officer pulled him over and told him his license was suspended. “I had no clue,” Macon said.
The officer gave him a citation for driving on a suspended license.
For months afterward, 34-year-old Macon woke up at 4 a.m. to catch three buses from his home in Wilkinsburg to the warehouse in Robinson where he worked at the time. He said the trip took up to two hours.
Losing his license had other repercussions. He had planned to obtain a commercial driver’s license and apply for higher-paying jobs as a truck driver. With his license suspended, he could no longer do so.
“That messed me all up,” he said. “I was missing great jobs.”
Macon said he had his license restored in January. He started a payment plan though still has a court date for driving on a suspended license.
Single Mom Nabbed Three Times in a Year
PublicSource spoke to eight people who have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay or failure to respond to a traffic citation.
One 26-year-old single mom had her license suspended in 2018 for not completely paying off the fines and fees related to a 2012 DUI in Washington County.
She said she has no other way of getting to work, so she continues to drive. She was caught driving on a suspended license three times last year, causing her to accrue more fines and fees and three years’ worth of additional suspensions.
Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay, resulting in at least 11 million suspensions across the country, according to Free to Drive, a national campaign for license suspension reform. The campaign’s leaders believe the estimate is undercounting because there is no national standard for tracking suspensions.
Organizations across the political spectrum are pushing for reform.
“When you take away the driver’s license of someone who doesn’t have the ability to pay in the first place, they’re not suddenly going to be able to pay,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is one of more than 100 bipartisan organizations that created the Free to Drive coalition in September 2019.
“The idea on paper may sound right, but the consequences for those who really aren’t able to pay are quite severe,” added Brooke.
“We’ve got to find the right balance,” said American Conservative Union attorney David Safavian. “We’re not saying that people should not be held accountable … but suspending someone’s driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees is just one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.
“How do we expect them to get to work?”
To a moderate degree, lower income communities tend to have a higher rate of license suspensions.
A PublicSource analysis of PennDOT data and income data from the U.S. Census Bureau found a statistically significant relationship between the median income of Allegheny County ZIP codes and the percent of the population in that ZIP code with a suspended license for failure to pay or respond.
In 2015, San Francisco became the first city in California to stop suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay. Instead, it focused on increasing revenue collection by sending more frequent reminders, making payment plans more accessible and providing discounts based on ability to pay, Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco treasurer’s office, wrote in an email to PublicSource.
In 2017, the entire state followed suit. In 2018, California reinstated the licenses of more than 200,000 people. On-time revenue collections have since increased by 9 percent, according to the Judicial Council of California.
According to research by the Buhl Foundation, license suspensions also disproportionately harm young people in Pennsylvania.
In a 2019 study, the Pittsburgh-based foundation found that every year, 5 percent of 16- through 24-year-old Pennsylvania drivers have their licenses suspended. The most common reasons for license suspension were failure to pay (36 percent) and failure to respond (17 percent).
“It’s a vicious cycle. You need a license to get a job to pay a fine, but if you don’t have a license, you can’t get a job to pay the fine that you lost your license over,” said Fred Thieman, the Henry Buhl, Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership at the Buhl Foundation, who led the research.
Thieman, who is not advocating for specific legislation, described the current system as “a backwards policy.”
This is a condensed and edited version of a piece that appeared in PublicSource as Part 3 of a series exploring the plight of people who can’t pay their court debt. Staff writer Juliette Rihl is a Justice Reporting Fellow for the 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Fellowship on “Cash Register Justice.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.