New York State is making major changes to the way that it monitors and ensures that individuals pay traffic violation fines. Punishments associated with the failure to appear in court or pay traffic violation fines vary from state to state. In Oklahoma, for example, the failure to appear in court to face charges involving traffic violations or otherwise is punishable by up to two years in prison, as well as up to $5,000 in fines. Although the penalties historically instituted by New York may be considered more minor in theory, in reality, opponents have argued that they were too harsh and highly restrictive for individuals experiencing poverty. This punishment involved the suspension of an individual’s driver’s license after they failed to pay fines relating to traffic violations.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that will end this punishment on New Year’s Eve. The punishment was often given to individuals who failed to pay traffic tickets and was strictly opposed by those advocating for racial and economic justice. Additionally, the law will reinstate driving privileges for thousands of New York residents that previously were unable to legally drive due to the suspension of their licenses.
The Issues Regarding License Suspension
While some would argue that the suspension of a driver’s license is not harsh in comparison to heavy fines or a prison sentence, the amount of licenses suspended indicates that many New York residents were simply unable, not unwilling, to pay fines. Additionally, the poverty experienced by these residents was only made worse by their suspended driver’s license. A suspended driver’s license could cause a person to lose their job, due to their inability to get to work regularly. While public transportation is a reliable option in some areas, it is either unavailable or unaffordable in others. People without driver’s licenses are also unable to take their children to school reliably. The suspension of driver’s licenses is particularly problematic post-pandemic, as people are unable to visit their doctors without a driver’s license.
Racial and economic justice advocates argue that penalties like these essentially criminalize poverty. Although traffic laws should be taken seriously, as nearly 3 million people are injured in car accidents on American roads every year, those experiencing poverty should not be further punished when they are actively unable to pay their fines on time. For this reason, advocates also argue that more work needs to be done to fight the criminalization of poverty, especially in light of the fact that Cuomo actually weakened the legislation before signing it.
The Issues Leading to Criminalized Poverty
Following the 2008 recession, taxes became less reliable forms of revenue for certain jurisdictions, which is why they raised the amounts of fines and fees charged. These fines and fees were used to fund government services. But unlike taxation, fines and fees are not adjusted according to an individual’s wealth. Therefore, a person that earns $20,000 a year would pay the same fines and fees as a person that earns $100,000 per year. These individuals not only need to pay for their fines and fees but also their regular expenses including their monthly rent and utility bills. Though a person’s monthly rent and utility bills should not represent more than 30% of their monthly post-tax income, according to BestColleges.com and other financial experts, this is not the reality for many people. Therefore, they are left with little or no money to pay fines and fees.
Additionally, calls to reform fines and fees have escalated following investigations into the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The investigations revealed that African Americans were more extensively fined by the police in Ferguson, suggesting that African Americans would therefore more extensively suffer from consequences for unpaid fines like the suspension of driver’s licenses. Furthermore, New York studies have shown that Black and low-income households are more targeted by driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees and that the same is true nationally.
In general, Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to be pulled over and ticketed. This means that they are more likely to accrue debt over time and have their licenses suspended. This can be particularly problematic in states like New York, which are more likely to ticket drivers in general. Drivers that are already experiencing poverty will be more likely to receive multiple tickets, and as their debts related to tickets accrue they will have their licenses suspended more quickly.
The issue that advocates are now concerned about is a change made to the legislation eliminating suspensions. The original bill would have also eliminated suspensions due to a failure to appear in court for a traffic hearing. However, the governor’s office requested a chapter amendment that removed this provision. Therefore, if an individual fails to appear in court following the receipt of a traffic ticket, they will still have their license suspended.
Many individuals that are unable to pay their traffic tickets are also unable to appear in court. This is because appearing in court often requires taking time off of work, which many people experiencing poverty cannot afford to do. They may even be at risk of losing their jobs if they attempt to take time off of work to appear in court. A person would then be forced to choose between having their license suspended or risk losing their job.
Technically, the new law will allow a 90-day grace period for those that fail to appear in court. They will receive two notifications by mail or digital communications. Additionally, the new law offers a moratorium on criminal charges for those driving with a suspended license between January 1 and July 1, provided their suspension is related to a failure to pay or appear in court. However, those that are given fines due to violations relating to vehicle height or weight restrictions can still have their licenses suspended.
Advocates for economic and racial justice hope that this new law represents the beginning of changes in New York state. The No Price on Justice coalition, for example, calls for the abolition of all state-imposed court fees, commissary garnishment for court debt, mandatory minimum fines, and arrests and incarceration for nonpayment of fines. In addition, the abolishment of New York’s property tax cap would allow municipalities to generate revenue through means other than fines and fees. It remains to be seen how much legislation will be altered in the future.