The Legal Rights Center has employees and contributors from a variety of different backgrounds, and we invite all our staff and volunteers to contribute to conversations on the topics of racial justice, the criminal justice system, and many more. Omi Strait, summer communications assistant for the LRC, and M. Graciela Gonzalez, volunteer attorney, contributed to this post.
The Justice System in Minnesota is anything but “just” when it comes to punishing people for the smallest of offenses codified in an overbroad Criminal Code and city ordinances. For example, walking your dog on a leash, but without the dog tag required by your city, may result in a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Indeed, many city codes include a provision stating that it is a misdemeanor offense to violate any provision of the city’s Code of Ordinances.
Of course, the piling of monetary obligations on the working poor is not restricted to a fine and surcharges. There are also Probation fees, the cost of evaluations, programming required by Probation, restitution, etc.
Most low-level offenses settle through plea bargaining and require a defendant to pay a fine. Often, judges allow a defendant to pay the fine with free work for the county, in the form of Sentence to Service, or some other form of community service, or with jail credit for time served; or the fine or part of it can be stayed with conditions. However, state law imposes a mandatory surcharge to every fine ($75 in Hennepin County), and the judges cannot stay, waive or allow an alternative form of payment for the surcharge. More onerous for our clients, nonpayment of a fine or its surcharge often results in suspension of their driving privileges. The result is no driver's license ('DL'), no job, as most people need to drive to their jobs. The state has other options to collect an unpaid fine (intercept tax refunds, pursue a civil action, etc.) The state does not need to deprive someone of his or her driving license to collect an unpaid fine. The following piece highlights the current efforts to redress some of these injustices.
Minnesota Bill SF 1376/HF 1061 -- Eliminating the Harmful Effects of Driver’s License Suspension
For over 11 million people in the U.S., failing to pay a ticket within 30 days triggers a driver’s license suspension. Because the suspension is based on payment and not dangerous driving, low-income people are disproportionately affected - these types of funds-based suspensions have more to do with if an individual has money to pay their ticket, rather than whether or not they should be on the road. And for many low-income people, receiving a driver’s license suspension can be catastrophic - pushing people deeper into the cycle of poverty. Minnesota bill SF 1376/HF 1061 could help to prevent this.
Having a driver’s license highly influences one’s employment opportunities and ability to meet one’s basic needs. Driving can be necessary for accessing groceries, getting kids to school, and is especially important for getting to work. If people can’t get to work consistently, especially low-income people, they may lose their employment (over 60% of low-income workers whose driver’s license is suspended lose their jobs). This means that paying the bills becomes incredibly difficult - not to mention paying the court debt that suspensions incur. Therefore, the effects of suspensions are debilitating, especially for people who may not have stable employment, housing, or a financial buffer in the first place. Consequently, most people who have had their driver’s license suspended continue to drive because they have to meet their needs. Between the risk of getting another ticket while going to work, or being fired and not being able to pay rent, there’s really only one choice: drive.
Say that an individual receives a traffic ticket. They could 1) pay the fine (which we know can be impossible for some people), or 2) contest the ticket in court. Unfortunately, court notices are sent by mail, and since many low-income people are likely to experience housing insecurity, a change of address is common and therefore they are less likely to receive the notice. Then, not only have they not paid the ticket, but they incur a penalty for failing to go to court. Now their license is suspended, but they continue to use their vehicle for the reasons discussed above.
Say that same person, after having their license suspended, is caught driving. They are issued yet another fine (the $300 ticket adding to their existing financial burden), and if they pay the ticket for driving after suspension, it is seen as an admission of guilt. This means that their license will be suspended for a second time. The cycle begins again, increasing the amount of time that an individual may not have reliable transportation and therefore reliable income, ultimately making it even harder for them to meet their needs and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. This basically means that the hours police, judges, attorneys, and other government employees spend addressing these suspensions are, at their core, spent on prosecuting people for being poor. This is not only incredibly unfair, discriminatory, and counterproductive, but it is an abysmal use of taxpayer dollars and time that could be spent addressing more serious threats to public safety.
SF 1376/HF 1061 would address these unfair issues. If the only offense is an unpaid traffic ticket, the bill would prevent a license suspension. It would eliminate the penalty for failing to show up in court to contest the initial ticket, and it would eliminate the second suspension - disrupting the cycle of suspension, fine, suspension, fine, etc. But would this decrease the incentive to pay the initial ticket or drive safely? SF 1376/HF 1061 maintains the existing collection process and Habitual Violator Law - two effective and efficient accountability mechanisms already in place. Unpaid traffic tickets and their late fees would still go to collections, where the Department of Revenue would still withhold payment for debt from one’s tax refund, continue with the garnishment of wages, bank accounts, or other income, or file a lien against property. The Habitual Violator Law (which ensures that habitually careless or dangerous drivers can be kept off the roads) would be unaffected as well. Again, this bill would only influence driver’s license suspensions based on unpaid traffic tickets, not dangerous driving.
In June of 2017, California became the first state to end license suspensions for failure to pay a traffic ticket. In the first full year of the bill’s effect, the percentage of paid tickets actually rose by 8.9%. They attribute this success to the newly passed bill, and the corresponding fact that when people can keep their license, their job, and their income, they will eventually pay their ticket. These effects are also consistent with other places that either do not suspend licenses for failure to pay a ticket, or make it easier for people to pay - like Fort Worth Municipal Court in Texas, or Palm Beach County in Florida.
SF 1376/HF 1061 is a bipartisan bill that was proposed 3 years ago in Minnesota and since then has garnered support from local and national legal organizations, as well as individuals from all sides of the political spectrum. Locally, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, ACLU of Minnesota, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, and many more support this bill. Many County Attorneys, including John Choi from Ramsey County, have voiced their support, writing that “It’s time, Minnesota, to do right by the people of our state and pass HF 1061/SF 1376.” Nationally, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU have shown their support for eliminating drivers license suspensions based on unpaid tickets as well. Even more urgently, now in the time of COVID-19, a license suspension could mean an individual being forced to take public transportation - exposing them to a pandemic that already disproportionately harms low income people and people of color.
If this is an issue that resonates with you, there are many ways to get involved and show your support for SF 1376/HF 1061 - just contact Anna Odegaard at the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you have struggled with the issue of driver’s license suspension for an unpaid ticket and you’re willing to share your story, Anna can help find out who your legislators are, help you explain your story, and make an appointment to meet with your legislator to get them on board. For people who haven’t personally experienced the consequences of a license suspension, Anna can provide language for an email to your legislator and coach you through talking points. The goal is for legislators to hear from people in their district that the unfair consequences for license suspension from an unpaid ticket cannot continue.
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