(ran ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)
For three years, the state of Florida has taken away driver's licenses from people who shirk on child support.
It's a "wake-up call for deadbeats," Department of Revenue Director Larry Fuchs said last year while announcing tougher enforcement.
But sometimes, St. Petersburg resident Sam Alsop says, people fall behind on support for a reason. And yanking their licenses doesn't always help.
Alsop, 53, was laid off from his mechanic's job last summer. His chronic arthritis became so bad that his doctor advised against further heavy labor. A state agency began to retrain him as a financial planner.
And then a notice arrived in the mail: Pay up or lose your driver's license.
"I finally figured out what to do with my life, and this wrenched up the whole works," Alsop said Friday. "I couldn't do anything with clients without a license. You have to go see people."
This month, the courts agreed.
Hearing master Keela Roberts Samis noted that Alsop had lost most of his income and was selling his possessions to pay some support. Beyond that, it is unconstitutional to suspend a driver's license when a parent has no means to pay, she wrote. It "only punishes the person for being in a situation that was beyond his/her control."
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge David A. Demers approved Samis' ruling and signed an order letting Alsop keep his driver's license. As of now, the ruling applies only to Alsop. But the state may well appeal, which could result in precedent being set.
"I'm sure we'll do some response legally," Revenue Department spokesman Chuck Springston said Friday.
Since January 1994, more than 10,000 Floridians who have fallen behind on support payments have received notices that their driver's licenses are in jeopardy, Springston said. Most paid at least some of their debt. Only about 1,500 had their licenses suspended.
"It's only one of our enforcement tools, but it's an important tool," Springston said. "It has resulted in more than $1-million in collections."
Alsop said he will finish his financial planner training in March and will pay off his back support as soon as he can.
"The times I've been unemployed, the arrearage has built up," he said. "But when I have money rolling in, I pay it every week."
Meanwhile, his daughters, May Lee, 7, and Tamara, 5, spend most weekends with him at his girlfriend's house, he said. They like to skate or go to the beach, the park or the $1 theater. He drives his girlfriend's 1982 Volvo.
Alsop and the girls' mother moved to Florida from Connecticut six years ago and parted ways soon after they arrived. They never married, but there was never any question that Alsop had fathered the two girls, he said.
The children mainly lived with their mother, he said, while he shifted from job to job, hampered by chronic neck and shoulder pain. His income varied from $20,000 a year to "sometimes half that."
In 1993, the court set basic child support at $100 a week, plus $20 toward overdue support. Alsop said he made most of those payments until last summer, when he was laid off from a $10-an-hour job repairing recreational vehicles.
That was his last steady job.
He collected unemployment insurance, half of which was deducted automatically for child support. Every time he tried heavy labor, he said, "I'd be in so much pain, I'd come home and go right to bed."
In October, a doctor diagnosed advanced osteoarthritis of the spine. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation accepted him into a training program.
When the state threatened to remove his driver's license, Alsop turned to Clearwater lawyer N. Christian Brown, an acquaintance who agreed to delay charging legal fees until Alsop could catch up on his support payments.
Bruce Kaplan, a St. Petersburg lawyer representing the Revenue Department, argued that driving is a privilege, not a right, and that a person's ability to pay back support is irrelevant.
But Brown argued that the legislative purpose _ getting money to kids _ couldn't be met if Alsop had no means to pay. So deprivation of his license would violate his right to due process, Brown contended.
"Sam is doing his best," Brown said. "If he'd lost his license, he couldn't have stayed in school, couldn't have visited would-be clients, couldn't have visited with his kids. I don't think that's what the Legislature wanted."