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Penalizing Poverty: In Upstate NY, Driver’s License Suspensions Unravel Lives

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More than 3,000 times a day, New York State yanks a motorist’s driving privileges simply because he or she couldn’t afford to pay their traffic fines or failed to show up for a court date over it.

And nowhere in the state is this practice more concentrated than in the impoverished neighborhoods of Rochester, N.Y.

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While the reasons for that may be unclear — and whether aggressive policing, population density, and limited public transportation options are factors — the implications for residents are not, say anti-poverty advocates striving to bring attention to what they say is an unfair system that punishes people just for being poor.

“This is counterproductive,” said Joanna Weiss, executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which recently studied the state’s distribution of debt-related license suspensions as part of the organization’s Driven to Justice campaign.

“At a high level, if you want someone to pay a fine, then taking away their means of getting to work is counterproductive and makes no sense.”

Driving is recognized as being such a necessity that the state allows people convicted of driving while intoxicated to obtain a conditional license so they can still drive to and from work or school. But the same doesn’t apply for traffic fines.

“The state doesn’t take licenses away from people who have clearly committed public safety offenses, but they take it away if you can’t pay a $200 or $300 fine,” said Timothy Donaher, Monroe County public defender and a member of the Driven to Justice coalition.

The group comprises an array of grassroots, economic justice and civil rights organizations, public defenders and people impacted by suspensions.

Recognizing that the current license suspension scheme disproportionately hits people who can least afford to lose their means of transportation, legislative efforts are underway to scuttle the practice and make it easier for all motorists to pay non-criminal traffic fines.

A state Senate bill — supported by the coalition — that would do just that is under consideration by the Finance Committee.

If that bill and its Assembly companion pass before the legislative session ends June 19 and are signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York would join a growing number of states that have recently stopped suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid debt, including California, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi and Virginia.

The practice is also under scrutiny in states including Alabama, Oregon, Montana and Michigan where there have been successful constitutional challenges to its legality.

“The reality is that here in Monroe County, you need a driver’s license to be a productive citizen,” said Donaher. “You need it to get to your place of employment, to your doctor, to the grocery store, to take your kids to child care. Try to live as a poor person in the city and do all that on the bus, it’s simply not feasible. It’s impossible.”

No License, No Job

Angel Pagan lives in Rochester’s 14621 neighborhood.

Earlier this year, he lost his part-time (and only) job when he needed to take a day off to answer charges he’d been driving without a license.

“I made a mistake, I guess I had my bright lights on and didn’t know it,” said Pagan. “Irondequoit police pulled me over and asked me for my license and that’s when I found out it was suspended.”

Turns out, it was suspended nearly five years ago as a result of an unpaid fine from the time he got pulled over in East Rochester while driving an unregistered car he’d just bought a few blocks over to his house.

He said he never got a mailed notice, but he’d moved a couple of times since then so it was possible that any mail got lost.

“This is so confusing,” he said. “It’s terrifying, they suspended your license and you can’t make it to work and you can’t pay your bills and you lose your job, you lose everything.”

Pagan is on disability. He gets $748 per month. His rent is $650. His boss told him if he needed to take a day off from work to make his court date, he shouldn’t bother coming back.

A recent study in New Jersey showed that 42 percent of people who had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of debt lost their jobs within six months. And, nearly half of those people were unable to obtain new employment for the duration of the suspension.

A Wisconsin study revealed that among recipients of public assistance, having a valid driver’s license was a more accurate predictor of sustained employment than even a high school diploma.

To pay for his tickets — both old and new — Pagan stopped paying his RG&E bill and thought about giving up his apartment so he could use the rent money.

He sold his car instead.

In court in mid-May, Pagan pleaded guilty to third-degree facilitating aggravated unlicensed operation — a traffic violation, rather than the initial misdemeanor he’d been charged with — and was fined $200 plus the mandatory $93 state surcharge.

75% of Suspended Motorists Continue to Drive

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators found that about 75 percent of drivers with suspensions continue to drive.

And, the group says, when licenses are suspended for non-safety-related reasons, suspension becomes less serious in the eyes of law enforcement, courts and the public.

Estimates are that at least 10 percent of all unlicensed operator tickets written nationally are connected to debt-related suspensions.

“We are charging people for their poverty and getting people entrenched in the criminal justice system that don’t belong there,” said Weiss. “If you have money, you pay and walk away and there’s this whole other justice system for people who can’t afford to pay their tickets.”

The Fines and Fees Justice Center’s Driven by Justice study focused on license suspensions issued between January 2016 and April 2018.

In all, nearly 1.7 million suspensions solely for unpaid traffic court debt were issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles during that time.

In 2016 alone, there were 43 suspensions issued statewide for every 1,000 New Yorkers of driving age,

“This is a misuse of justice resources,” said Weiss. “It makes sense to suspend licenses in order to keep a dangerous driver off the road, but if you can’t pay a ticket or miss a court date, that’s not an indication you’re a dangerous driver. We’re using our police resources, and clogging our court systems.”

See also: Driven to Debt: How Traffic Fines Punish Americans for Poverty

Meaghan McDermott is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed version of a story that appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle this week as part of her fellowship project. The complete story is available by subscription only here. Read her first project story here.

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