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A fine mess

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Friday, April 2, 2021

A fine mess

Media for Wix

"Our hope is to get payments to no more than 2 percent of one's annual income, divided by 12." — Sarah Couture, Fines and Fees Justice Center

Of the 16 years I lived in New York City, I lived eight of them unencumbered by a car. Anywhere I wanted to go for work, play or travel, I could get to by subway, bus, train or — in the pre-Uber days — taxi.

Not so here in Florida. I have a child who's active in theatre. In the before times, between school, voice lessons, tech work, rehearsals and performances, I lived in my car. 

With no public transportation to speak of (don't even with Lynx or Sunrail), having the means to drive, if not an actual car, is essential. So if you lose your license, if it gets suspended, for instance, because of unpaid court debt or because you couldn’t pay a traffic ticket or toll violation, that is a great, big, effing deal. 

According to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of Americans can’t cover an unexpected $400 expense, like a traffic ticket with a 30-day due date. When that date comes and goes without payment, the license is suspended. Sometimes drivers only find out when they get pulled over again and learn they now have additional fines for driving with a suspended license added to their tab. Tempt fate by continuing to drive, and the next time they're stopped, even for something as minor as a broken tail light, they could be facing jail time, even a felony conviction. 

It would be one thing if drivers license suspensions were being used to take hazardous drivers off the road — people with DUIs and high-score penalty points. But of the 151,433 suspension notices sent to Orange County drivers in 2017, a mere 1,844 were for dangerous driving. The remaining 149,589 — 94 percent of the notices — were for unpaid fines and fees. Of these, 20,589 reflected criminal court debt, and 129,294 were traffic-related, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

A pair of bipartisan bills introduced to the state legislature this session — HB 557 sponsored by Rep. Chip LaMarca (R-Broward) and SB 386 sponsored by Tom Wright (R-New Smyrna Beach) — would push clerks of court to establish uniform, affordable payment plans, tailored to one's ability to pay. The payment plans, which include an option for community service for those who legitimately cannot pay, aim to prevent drivers licenses from getting suspended in the first place. 

"Our hopes are that we can get the uniform affordable payment plans created so people’s payments will be based on no more than 2 percent of their annual income divided by 12," explains Sarah Couture, Florida state deputy director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. "People will be able to afford their payments, and thus their drivers license won’t be suspended."

This would really seem to be a no-brainer. Especially since cutting off one's ability to earn money to pay down debt seems, to be polite, counterintuitive. But when has logic factored into the legislative system? (This is the same body considering criminalizing distribution of food and water to voters standing on line in the name of “election security.”)

The sticking point is that the Florida Constitution dictates that clerks of the courts' budgets (among other things) be funded by these fines and fees.

Tom Bexley, Flagler County's clerk of court, testified on Tuesday before the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on behalf of Florida Clerks of Court and Comptrollers that he was loathe to give up what he described as his “velvet hammer.” 

“Our collections are high, and I attribute that to the fact that we have suspensions as a tool of enforcement,” Bexley told the committee.

He stuck to that tune even when low-key trolled by Rep. Michael Gottlieb (D-Broward), the ranking Democrat on the committee: “My understanding is that there are 14 other states that don’t suspend drivers licenses, yet have collections in those states. How are they doing it? How are they doing it better than us? And what can we do to raise fiscal as those other states are doing?” [Ed. note: There are now 15 states; Florida would be the 16th.] 

Bexley dodged. “We haven’t found a program that we believe will work, but when we do, it’s coming. It’s absolutely coming to you.”

This is what it looks like when racism is built right into the system. Florida clerks of court are funding their departments, at least partially, through Black and Brown communities. It’s no coincidence that license suspensions are highest where people of color and low-income families live. After all, who gets stopped most frequently by the police? A nationwide study of nearly 100 million traffic stops done by the Stanford Open Policing Project found that Black people are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white people. Here in Orange County, the ACLU found that Black drivers are pulled over and ticketed for seat-belt violations 2.8 times more often than white drivers. When every dollar of your paycheck is already allocated for rent, bills and groceries, even a $35 seat-belt citation ticket can be out of reach.

This practice has to end. It is punishing people not for driving dangerously but for being poor. And the "velvet hammer" is not as effective as proponents think it is. 

Bexley says his department has a 90 percent collection rate for traffic fines. That's nice. He didn't mention how long it took them to collect. Statewide research shows that 75 percent of Florida suspensions issued in 2016 were still active in 2018, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Another study, done by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, found that it took 10 percent of drivers five years to get their licenses returned.

Committee member Rep. Christopher Benjamin (D-Miami-Dade) zeroed in on the uniquely unfair nature of the fee collection structure as it stands now. “Paying fees of the clerk is not or should not be part of their [defendants’] punishment," he said, expressing his support for HB 557. "The statute says ‘jail time or a fine.’ These are administrative costs. These are not an advent of the punishment that we dole out to a defendant pursuant to statute. Yet we still saddle them with these particular additional costs to their time in incarceration or their fines that they have to pay with regard to that. I think that suspending drivers licenses is counterintuitive to what defendants need to do to meet their obligations.”

HB 557 passed out of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee with 11 yeas and 3 nays. Yesterday, it was handed to the Judiciary Committee. Let’s hope it’s judged as wisely there.

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