"Impossible Choice" for Poor NYers Who Lose Licenses Over Unpaid Tickets; Advocates Urge Reform
by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) The next time you’re waiting at a stoplight in Rochester’s 19th Ward, think about this statistic:
For every three people of driving age in that zip code, there's one driver's license suspension for traffic debt. That means a suspension not paying or not appearing in court to contest a traffic ticket. And in the majority of those cases, the suspension lasts for over a year.
That’s according to 2016 data obtained by the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
"In New York State's poorest communities, we see driver's license suspension rates for traffic debt that are 9 times as high as in our wealthiest communities," says Katie Adamides.
She's the New York State Director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization that’s been pushing lawmakers in Albany to pass the Drivers License Suspension Reform Act.
Adamides says the current system in New York State forces poor people to make an impossible choice.
"They either meet their basic needs by driving illegally or they somehow forego their basic needs, like getting to work, helping with their dependents' care," she says.
Adamides says that 75% of people faced with that choice keep driving, risking arrest and criminal charges, as well as additional fines and fees.
Tim Donaher is the Public Defender for Monroe County. He says charges related to driving with a suspended license make up the largest share of cases his office sees in a given year.
In 2018, his office provided representation on 2,671 "Aggravated Unlicensed Operation" misdemeanor cases, the charge for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license.
Donaher says the current system not only perpetuates systemic poverty. It’s also counterproductive.
"Under the system now, when you say to a poor person you owe $400 and then if you don't pay it we're going to keep adding fees and everything else, it quickly becomes unpayable and they simply just cannot pay it," Donaher says.
He says the Drivers License Suspension Reform Act is attractive because it allows payment plans at rate sensitive to income.
Under the current proposal, those payment plans would be set at 2% of a person’s monthly income, or no less than $10 a month.
The Drivers License Suspension Reform Act almost made it across the finish line during the last legislative session. Katie Adamides says she' hopeful it will get to the governor’s desk this time around with minimal changes.
"We have reason to believe it will be taken up by committees in the both the Senate and the Assembly in the coming weeks," she says.
And for many people in Monroe County, that’s likely to be a welcome development.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at email@example.com