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Steve Bousquet: Is Florida suspending too many drivers' licenses?

The state of Florida is in the business of driving people into poverty.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, who couldn't believe how often the state suspends drivers' licenses: It happened to nearly 700,000 people last year.

In a pre-session interview with the Times/Herald, Weatherford called for cheaper, in-state tuition at state universities for children of undocumented immigrants. He was discussing income inequality when he cited the frequency — and, in his view, the injustice — of so many suspensions during the past year.

"If you go look at the data, they didn't pay a fine," Weatherford said. "They forgot to show up in court. They didn't pay their child support. There's this snowball effect. They lose their driver's license. Now they can't get to work. They get pulled over on a suspended driver's license. Now they go to jail. Now they owe $4,000. It creates poverty. It holds people down."

A total of 685,489 drivers in Florida had their licenses suspended in the fiscal year that ended last June. The law allows for a "business purposes only'' license in some cases, but not for people who lose their licenses because they failed to pay fines.

And 167,000 of those suspensions had nothing to do with driving.

Failure to pay child support is grounds for suspension. So is a drug-related conviction, failure to appear in court on a worthless check charge and truancy by a minor. There are hundreds of kids under age 16 in Florida whose future licenses have been suspended because they habitually skip school, even though their licenses don't yet exist.

A new report by the Legislature's research unit, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, found that more people received nondriving-related suspensions in the past year for failure to pay court costs than for any other reason.

The report also found that suspending licenses for nonpayment of child support is effective because many parents complied rather than risk having their licenses suspended.

But nearly two-thirds of people who got their licenses reinstated after paying penalties for writing bad checks had been driving with suspended licenses for two years or longer.

That's risky business.

A motorist who knowingly drives with a suspended license can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. A second offense could mean a year behind bars, but many drivers stay on the road illegally because they have to get to work and simply can't afford to pay a fine.

Weatherford's point about a link between suspensions and poverty is seen in the numbers. Miami-Dade, the state's most populated county and the area with the highest cost of living in Florida, had 137,000 suspended drivers last year. Nearly three times as many of them were black as were white (43,000 to 15,000). Most of the remaining drivers were Hispanic.

A Miami-Dade lawmaker, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, has filed a bill (SB 302) to let motorists work off their fines by performing community service.

It's a statewide problem. Pinellas had 30,000 suspended drivers in the past year; Hillsborough had nearly 44,000.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Steve Bousquet: Is Florida suspending too many drivers' licenses? 02/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 9:44pm]
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