Suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid traffic tickets disproportionately affects poor and minority New Yorkers. Moreover, the suspension creates more obstacles to paying the debt than it does incentive to do so. These are among the findings discussed in a new report by the New York Law School, which presents a case for both eliminating debt-related suspensions as well as solutions for how to recover the unpaid fines.
Drivers who do not respond to or pay a traffic ticket often have their licenses suspended. In some cases, they can also be convicted of the offense by default. The report, which cites Rosenblum Law as a source for data and other information, states that 1.7 million New Yorkers had their license suspended for traffic debt (i.e. unpaid tickets or other fees) between 2016 and 2018.
In order to get a license reinstated, not only must a person pay the ticket, he/she must also pay a $70 suspension termination fee. For low-income drivers, this only makes the prospect of paying the fine more difficult, which in turn disincentives many drivers from even trying, the report notes.
Worse, those who are caught driving on a suspended license are charged with a criminal offense of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation (AUO). This results in more fines, more surcharges, and other costs that low-income New Yorkers are unlikely to be able to afford.
Of course, a person can avoid being charged and convicted of AOU by not driving his/her vehicle. But that’s not always financially feasible. Outside New York City, most parts of the state require a motor vehicle for a person to obtain gainful employment. Not driving only exacerbates a low-income person’s ability to earn income and thusly pay the underlying fine and other fees.
For this reason, the report reasons, suspending licenses over unpaid traffic tickets is self-defeating. In fact, nearly half of suspensions for unpaid tickets in 2016 remained in effect one year later.
The Broader Economic Damage
The impact of a debt-related suspended license is not limited to the driver and his/her family. Such a widescale application of license suspensions has a broader economic impact, which the report covers in detail.
Firstly, in addition to commuting to and from work, many New Yorkers must also drive as part of job responsibilities. For example, a driver’s license is often a prerequisite for employment in industries such as construction, home health care, motor vehicle sales and services, and delivery services.
Secondly, a worker with a suspended license in these and other industries often must be replaced, which comes at a cost to employers. An unrelated study estimates the cost of hiring new employees at about $7,645.
The depletion of the labor pool also takes away from taxable income while increasing the need for state and/or federal income assistance, such as welfare, SNAP, unemployment, and more. This pushes a larger burden for tax payments onto those who are currently working. Thus, these non-safety-related suspensions hurt every New Yorker.
Blacks and Latinos Suffer the Brunt of Suspensions
In New York City, there are 2.5 times as many driver’s license suspensions per 1,000 people in areas with high concentrations of people of color than those areas with predominantly white populations. Outside of NYC, the disparity is even more extreme. The suspension rate in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest proportion of people of color is four times higher than in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest proportion of white populations.
This is consistent with overall data on traffic stops. In 2017, African Americans accounted for 31% of New York State Police traffic stops in Monroe County, yet made up just 14%
of the county’s population. Suffolk County data shows that in 2018, African Americans accounted for almost 18% of the Suffolk PD traffic stops, despite comprising just 7% of the county’s population.
According to data obtained from the Buffalo Police Department (BPD), the BPD’s Strike Force conducted more than 1,700 checkpoints between January 2013 and October 2017. Nearly 40% of those checkpoints happened in areas where African American and Latino populations made up more than 86% of residents.
This trend is just one of the reasons that people of color make up more than two-thirds of all debt-induced license suspensions, according to the report. The other is that people of color—in particular African Americans and Latinos—are far more likely to experience poverty. Data shows that in 2016, 22% of African Americans lived in poverty despite comprising less than 14% of the U.S. population; conversely, just 9% of whites lived in poverty that year while making up more than 75% of the U.S.
Solutions to Debt-Induced Suspensions
The study offers a multi-pronged solution to debt-induced suspensions while increasing the odds that people will be able to pay traffic fines. It starts with ending the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid tickets. In addition, the report suggests:
- Granting courts and hearing officers the discretion to reduce traffic fines, surcharge, and other costs.
- Requiring that affordable payment plans be offered, such as 2% monthly income or $10 per month, whichever is greater.
- Providing notice of the availability of any such payment plan at the time the ticket is issued, at the time of sentencing, and in any communications involving the imposition or collection.
- Reinstating licenses currently suspended for not paying or appearing to contest a traffic ticket and waiving the $70 suspension termination fee.
- Revising and mitigating the crime of driving with a suspended license (AOU) by repealing multiple debt-induced suspensions as an aggravating circumstance.
On top of these solutions, the report recommends New York and other states compile and release more data related to traffic stops, traffic tickets, and traffic ticket outcomes (i.e. the exact fine and whether jail time or other penalties were imposed). This could help the state, law enforcement, and third-party organizations study the effectiveness of this and other traffic-related policies and procedures.