Bill would end driver license suspensions for traffic fines

Bill would end driver license suspensions for traffic fines

By HEATHER GANN, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – If a bill in the Alabama Senate becomes law, Alabamians’ driver licenses would no longer be suspended because of unpaid traffic tickets.

Senate Bill 117, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, also says that licenses can’t be suspended due to failure to appear at compliance hearings for unpaid tickets.

Leah Nelson, research director for the Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, explained the impact this bill has on the labor shortage in Alabama. According to Appleseed, nearly 170,000 driver licenses in Alabama are suspended for debt-based reasons. That stops many from being eligible for open jobs or from simply driving to work. 

Meanwhile, job openings in the state are double the number of available workers.

“We need to be doing what we can to get people to work and not suspending licenses basically for poverty,” Nelson said. “Many jobs that don’t even require driving still require a license as a valid form of I.D., so when people lose their license, it’s very hard for them to keep their jobs.”

Peter Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said it’s not only the labor force that driver license suspensions impact, but also tax revenue for the entire state as individuals without licenses aren’t typically able to obtain taxable jobs and also aren’t paying the state taxes on gas. 

“With its current policy of suspending drivers’ licenses for debt-related reasons, the state of Alabama is losing $804.86 in tax revenue per suspended license even after collecting the traffic debt,” Jones said.

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, plans to file the companion bill to SB117 in the House next week. She said the legislation is an opportunity to right a wrong.

“People who are losing their driver’s licenses because of court fines, not because of reckless driving — it disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income folks,” Coleman said. 

Coleman said she expects bi-partisan support for the bill because lawmakers agree people shouldn’t lose their licenses because they couldn’t pay a fine or didn’t get a court notice.

“Low-income folks, they move often,” Coleman, an attorney, said. “They shouldn’t lose their license because of that.”

The bill would also work retroactively, meaning that any Alabama resident’s driver license that had been suspended due to unpaid traffic fines and failure to appear in court for this reason before the bill was passed would be reinstated. Senate Bill 17 adds that any reinstatement fees would be waived so long as the resident had no other fees pending for different charges.

Workers Drive Alabama, a campaign led by Appleseed, focuses specifically on the issue of driver license suspension and how it impacts individuals across the state. 

Among these people with suspended licenses, 5% were suspended due to reckless driving while the other 95% were due to unpaid traffic fines, according to a 2018 survey by the campaign. 

The survey also found that in order to repay traffic fines:

  • 89% of people had to forgo basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine, 73% were forced to request charity that they wouldn’t otherwise have needed; 
  • 48% took out a high-interest payday loan to pay off their tickets; 
  • 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their debt. 

“Driver license suspension reform represents the convergence of two very important issues in Alabama right now: workforce shortage and the inability of Alabama citizens to lead prosperous lives,” Nelson said. 

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barfoot could not be reached for comment. 

The Legislature’s regular session resumes Tuesday.