Hundreds of Thousands of Low-Income New Yorkers Could Regain Freedom to Legally Drive with the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act
Tuesday June 29, New York’s Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act takes full effect, ending the state’s widespread practice of suspending an individual’s driver’s license when they cannot afford to pay a traffic fine.
This legislation will allow hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to regain their driver’s licenses — and with it their access to work and other necessities. Sponsored by Senator Tim Kennedy of Buffalo and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter of Syracuse, New York’s legislation was approved by wide margins and signed into law by Gov. Cuomo last year.
Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are a cruel and counterproductive collection practice that creates a cycle of poverty and punishment few can escape. Between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of traffic fines and non-appearance at traffic hearings.
If a person drives with a suspended license, they are subject to arrest, more fines and fees, and even jail, simply because they cannot afford to pay a traffic ticket. Because Black and Latinx people are disproportionately stopped, ticketed, charged and convicted for traffic violations, this especially burdens their families and communities.
The new law will end license suspensions due to non-payment of traffic fines, while making affordable payment plans available (at 2% of a person’s monthly income or $25/month, whichever is greater). The reform would also reinstate the licenses of people who currently have a suspended license due to non-payment of traffic fines.
The new law will also help individuals whose licenses are suspended for missing a traffic hearing by providing them with an opportunity to enter into a payment plan and get their licenses restored. Those individuals – often people who did not respond to their traffic ticket because they could not afford their traffic fines – can reinstate their licenses by entering a payment plan without the obstacle of paying reinstatement fees, as they will be folded into the total payment plan amount. Individuals will also now be issued two notifications prior to a license suspension.
In just the last five years, 20 states have passed similar laws to curb debt-based driver’s license suspensions. President Biden’s platform includes fines and fees reform, while Vice President Harris previously co-sponsored the federal Driving for Opportunity Act. This bipartisan federal legislation — which was reintroduced this year and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in April — would incentivize U.S. states to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions by providing them with extra federal funding. If the Driving for Opportunity Act is passed into law, New York will be eligible for those federal funds.
Here’s what legislators and advocates have to say about New York’s new law going into effect:
“New York is laying a foundation for accountability while simultaneously lifting hundreds of thousands of individuals out of an overwhelming cycle of debt and fear,” said Senator Tim Kennedy of Buffalo, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “By addressing these injustices that have existed for decades with a common-sense solution, we’re creating a more thoughtful and equitable path towards repaying traffic fees, and delivering new hope and opportunity to drivers across New York State.”
“The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act will finally begin the first step of addressing the disproportionately harsh outcomes that occur when a driver without financial means accumulates too much traffic debt,” said Assemblymember Pamela Hunter of Syracuse, the bill’s Assembly sponsor. “Suspending a license for failure to pay a fine does nothing but punish low-income families that are disproportionately people of color. An income-based payment plan is fair and ensures everyone has an opportunity to resolve their license issues. As rollout of this new important law commences, I will keep a close eye on implementation to improve access to payment plans through additional legislation as needed.”
“In 2019, I was one of thousands of New Yorkers who had their driver’s license suspended because they couldn’t afford fines and fees,” said Charles George Jones, a member of Center for Community Alternatives. “Now that the Governor has signed the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, I can get my license restored and be able to take care of simple things – like driving to the grocery store – without risking arrest. With this victory under our belt, we’re continuing the fight to end the criminalization of poverty in all its forms, including by abolishing predatory court fees.”
“Thousands of New Yorkers, primarily in over-policed communities of color, will have their suspensions for unpaid traffic fines lifted. They will no longer risk a criminal charge when they get in their car to drive to work or care for their families,” said Ranit Patel, Equal Justice Works Fellow at The Bronx Defenders. “This victory is an important step in our continued fight to end the criminalization of poverty in New York.”
“This new law does a lot to advance economic and racial inequality in New York,” said Katie Adamides, New York State Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Ending debt-based driving restrictions is a meaningful first step toward ending New York’s predatory fines and fees that encourage policing-for-profit and criminalize poverty.”
“For too long, the suspension of driver’s licenses due to the inability to pay traffic fines and fees has disproportionately affected low-income New Yorkers, particularly people of color,” said Claudia Wilner, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act paves the way for redressing these unfair and perverse practices that have prevented many people from maintaining employment and achieving economic security. We are pleased that New York has taken this critical step and congratulate the community of advocates who worked so hard to make it happen.”
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