Bipartisan effort would end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid tickets

Lamont Fondern carries a drum out of his church for an outdoor service. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

On a recent Friday night, Lamont Fondern Jr. was driving to Walmart in Bloomington when he noticed a cop car behind him. He got nervous.

The cop’s lights flashed as Fondern took an exit. He turned on Facebook Live. As a Black man getting pulled over, he said,“I needed someone to watch.”

The officer told him his vehicle registration tabs recently expired. Fondern didn’t know, because he hadn’t gotten a letter from the state. (Mail is notoriously slow these days.) When asked for his insurance, Fondern said he didn’t have it.

“I had to let it go for a little bit because of the pandemic,” he told the cop. “I couldn’t afford to keep paying it.”

The cop ran his plates, and said he would give him a ticket for not having proof of insurance. But Fondern would also have to pull over and not drive the car or he’d get towed and ticketed for not having registration, too.

Enough of these infractions — even parking tickets — and Fondern might have joined the 80,000 Minnesotans with suspended licenses. Most of them are low income and many of them people of color who get run on a seemingly endless treadmill of fines and court fees, suspensions and license revocations that can even wind them up in jail. They miss work and important appointments and lose out on good job opportunities because of it.

But there’s a movement to do something about it in Minnesota.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, and a bipartisan group of legislators have authored HF336, which would eliminate driver’s license suspensions for a wide range of minor offenses, including not appearing in court for a citation; petty misdemeanors; parking and traffic violations; and not paying fines or surcharges for parking or traffic violations. The bill would also prohibit license suspensions in cases when the person has been found driving after a previous suspension.

Becker-Finn said the legislation is an attempt to rectify a system that too often targets people of color. “As we have this broader conversation about what we want our justice system to look like and what our overall goals are, this really fits into that,” she said.

The threat of getting their licenses suspended does not motivate people to appear in court, Becker-Finn said. The reality, for those who cannot afford their fines, is that they will forgo payment and continue driving out of necessity. “If you want somebody to show up to court, taking away their ability to drive seems counter-productive,” she said. “The logic just isn’t there.”

More than 85% of Americans like Fondern drive to work. And in most communities, a car is required for grocery shopping and other errands, bringing an elderly parent to the doctor and shuttling children to school and activities. Even if a job doesn’t necessitate driving, employers often require applicants to hold a valid driver’s license.

That creates a huge barrier for the roughly 11 million Americans who have suspended driver’s licenses simply because they’re unable to pay the fines and fees associated with tickets. And that number is disproportionately made up of low-income people and people of color.

In Minnesota, for every 1,000 people of driving age, 19 of them have unresolved suspensions. Not only do these suspensions burden economically vulnerable Minnesotans, but they consume a sizable amount of public resources, as well. In 2019, Mary Ellen Heng, a deputy city attorney in Minneapolis, estimated that 30% of her office’s caseload dealt with license suspension and revocation cases.

The license suspension treadmill also inevitably leads to more encounters with the criminal justice system in the form of a misdemeanor for driving after suspension.

The Becker-Finn bill has cleared a number of committees already.

The Legislative Budget Office anticipates a $532,000 loss of revenue to the state per year beginning in fiscal year 2022, a relatively minor amount given the state’s roughly $50 billion, two year budget. And, a new economic forecast last week showed a state budget surplus.

Anna Odegaard, a legislative advocate for the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition, which has lobbied for the bill, said the lost revenue could be offset by savings from no longer arresting, prosecuting or collecting the fines from these cases. She said when a notice is sent out warning people their license will be suspended unless they pay a fine, just 20% of people pay.

Although the state could no longer suspend licenses in response to nonpayment of fines, the Department of Revenue could turn to other measures like garnishing wages or bank accounts, Odegaard said.

Fondern said he knows that system, too. “I have had that done to me in the past,” he said.

He had parking tickets pile up when he lived in downtown Minneapolis, especially during snow emergencies. He works two jobs — one in special education in Robbinsdale and the second for a local park board — so by the time he got home, it was difficult to find a spot, so he parked in no-parking zones.

Once fined, you have a certain amount of time to pay the fee, which range from $50 to $75. And if you can’t afford to pay the parking and traffic tickets, they can add up to the point where your wages are garnished, Fondern said.

Minnesota’s situation is not unique. Other jurisdictions have already taken action or are considering it to stop the cycle of fines and license suspensions and revocations.

Durham, North Carolina, recently expunged suspensions and fees to get drivers back on the road. The national “Free to Drive” campaign was founded on the idea that poverty shouldn’t impact the ability to drive. Bills have passed in California and Michigan, while efforts are underway in Washington and Florida.

Even with new legislation, barriers remain. Minnesotans will still have to contend with reinstatement fees — $20 for a suspended license and $30 for a revoked one — before they can actually be legally back on the road.

Other states have waived the reinstatement fee and automatically reinstated licenses to improve access, said Priya Sarathy Jones, who leads the Free to Drive campaign through her work as a national policy director with the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Another challenge is communicating with those who might qualify for license reinstatement. The Minnesota legislation includes roughly $9,000 for mailers in its fiscal note, but people with suspended or revoked licenses frequently change address and can be hard to track down.

Suspended and revoked licenses are also a top barrier for those reentering society after time in prison. Increasing access to the ability to drive can help reduce recidivism by providing access to employment.

Sarathy Jones also sees it as an important part of post-COVID-19 economic recovery. States should be eliminating, not building barriers to employment, Sarathy Jones said. “The more (barriers) you have in place, the less opportunities for economic recovery.”

Fondern, who had his license suspended a couple of years ago and couldn’t renew it because he couldn’t afford to pay the fines, still has a few unpaid tickets right now.

He knows a lot of people who get caught up in the same vicious cycle. “A lot of people are struggling to make means,” he said. “In the urban community… people who are not white, they get pulled over a lot.”