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Florida House subcommittee clears bill that would limit debt-based driver’s license suspensions

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Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Friday, March 12, 2021


Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

The Florida House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee Friday unanimously cleared legislation that would curtail driver’s license suspensions because Floridians couldn’t pay a fine or court fee that is unrelated to a driving incident.

House Bill 557, which now advances to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, would create a standardized and streamlined process across the state, allowing Floridians to pay fines or fees that are either 2 percent of their monthly income or $10 per month, whichever is higher, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Republican from East Broward County.

The legislation would still preserve a court clerk’s power to suspend an individual’s driver’s license for all driving-related infractions, such as DUIs and nonpayment of child support, he said. Payment plans should be affordable, standardized and focused on compliance, not punishment, he added.

“HB 557 strikes a balance between ensuring that individuals pay the debts that are owed while maintaining the person’s ability to earn a living,” he told the subcommittee. He added that 14 other states including Georgia, Michigan, New York and Texas have passed “similar common-sense reforms.”

In 2019, the Florida courts issued more than 1.2 million suspension notices, of which 72 percent were for unpaid fines and fees, not dangerous driving or public safety concerns, said LaMarca.

At least a dozen organizations with diverse political ideologies and interests — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, American for Prosperity-Florida, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Trucking Association and Florida Retail Federation — told the subcommittee that they supported the bill.

Ashley Thomas, a lobbyist with the New Venture Fund, said the state lost about $122 million in economic activity in 2019 based on the number of suspensions. Thomas is also the Florida director of New Venture’s Fines and Fees Justice Center, which is spearheading the campaign to change the law in the state. While it says two million drivers in the state currently have a suspended driver’s license, less than 4 percent are related to serious public safety issues.

Thomas said insurance carriers often drop individuals whose driver’s licenses are suspended leading to more people on the roads without insurance. “Having more insured drivers would reduce the costs for everybody,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Windermere, a member of the Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee, called the bill “very meaningful” because it would give people the chance to get on a payment plan and go about their lives such as looking for work if they’re unemployed.

While her Republican colleagues Subcommittee Chair Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville and Rep. Tommy Gregory of Sarasota voted for the bill, they expressed concern for Clerks of Courts that are dependent on fees to fund their budgets. Gregory said he represents two counties, which had to lay off 25 percent of their staff last year because court costs weren’t being collected. 

“I have concerns for the funding model for the clerks,” he said.

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