Debt-Based License Suspensions Get Fresh Scrutiny In NY

By Kevin Penton | February 23, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

New York lawmakers are taking a closer look at doing away with driver’s license suspensions based on debt, which a New York Law School report this month determined disproportionately impacts minority motorists.

The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act would eliminate license suspensions for individuals who did not either appear at traffic hearings or pay their traffic tickets, and would reinstate licenses that have been suspended for related reasons. From January 2016 to April 2018, nearly 1.7 million licenses were suspended in New York because of debt, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Supporters of the bill are hoping for new momentum, believing its prospects could be boosted by a Feb. 18 study by the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School that found that license suspension rates in the 10 ZIP codes in the state with the highest concentrations of minorities are four times higher than the 10 ZIP codes statewide with the highest concentrations of white people.

The report found that blacks were involved in 31.3% of traffic stops in Monroe County in 2017 while composing 14.4% of the county’s population, and 17.7% of traffic stops in Suffolk County in 2018 while making up 7.2% of the county’s population.

Researchers were not able to find New York-specific data on compliance rates for whites and minorities, but data from other locales suggests that they violate traffic laws at similar rates, said Melissa Toback, the Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow at the law school and the report’s author.

“If people are being pulled over more often, they’re more likely to get a ticket, which is more likely to lead to circumstances that result in a driver’s license suspension,” Toback said.

About two-thirds of the state’s license suspensions are for debt-related reasons, as opposed to dangerous driving, while approximately 75% of drivers continue to drive with a suspended license so they can get to work, take their children to school or perform other necessities, according to the report.

“Right now, people are driving with their suspended licenses to meet their basic needs,” said Katie Adamides, New York state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which worked on the report together with the Racial Justice Project.

“Police and court resources then get diverted to what is ultimately a counterproductive collection practice, because we are stopping people for driving with a suspended license, simply because they cannot afford to pay a traffic ticket,” Adamides added.

The legislation under consideration by New York lawmakers would create affordable payment plans based on individuals’ monthly net income. It’s currently before the Codes Committee in the state Assembly and before the Transportation Committee in the state Senate, after an earlier version passed the Senate in June but failed to be adopted by the Assembly.

The bill got bogged in the Assembly last year after some legislators questioned whether the bill would allow motorists to rack up tickets for speeding or other moving violations without the threat of seeing their licenses be suspended, said Jacob Sherretts, legislative director for Assembly Member Pamela Hunter, one of its sponsors. The legislation would not impact suspensions for individuals who accumulate points on their licenses, he said.

The legislation's proponents opted to hold back on the bill to answer the questions and achieve a broader consensus, Sherretts said. But now there is concern that the legislation could get lumped in with the political blowback in recent weeks to criminal justice reform in the state that amended New York’s bail laws.

Sherretts said backers of the measure are preparing to demonstrate how their proposal is distinct.

Adamides noted that there is bipartisan support nationwide for the issue, with states with disparate political backgrounds such as California and Mississippi recently enacting similar reforms.

“This is completely separate from criminal justice reform,” Adamides said. “The traffic context is entirely different from the criminal context.”

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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