More than 1.5 million of the roughly 17 million Florida drivers had their license suspended last year, many for unpaid fines and fees rather than actual driving infractions.
Next week, Pinellas County drivers who have had their license suspended for overdue court or traffic fees can get some of their late charges waived as part of a three-day amnesty program being held by the county clerk of court’s office.
The program, part of a statewide initiative called Operation Green Light, aims to improve collection of fines while helping residents get back on the road.
Suspending driver’s licenses is a routine practice that advocates say puts low-income residents at a disadvantage in a state not known for robust public transportation options.
“It gets folks stuck in this cycle of poverty,” said Sarah Couture, Florida state deputy director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national nonprofit that launched last year.
She said people whose licenses are suspended because they can’t afford to pay a fine or fee may struggle to get to work and may get caught illegally continuing to drive and risk more court fines.
Couture said suspensions “should be reserved to keep dangerous drivers off the road, not people who are struggling to make ends meet.”
But while suspensions over unpaid fines has attracted attention from state officials and policymakers in recent years, change has been slow — in part because county clerk of court offices rely heavily on income from fees and fines for their yearly budgets.
“Everyone agrees the policy is broken,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has pushed for years to change laws to keep more people from losing their licenses for non-driving offenses. But figuring out replacement revenue is also difficult, he noted.
Brandes was one of the legislators behind a law passed last session that required counties to hold at least one event a year to help people reinstate suspended driver’s licenses.
“This is the first step of helping people get back on the right track,” Brandes said.
Pinellas and many other counties had previously held Operation Green Light or similar events.
In 2015, the Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller waived about $107,000 in late charges and collected about $283,000 in fines from 934 cases during a five-day amnesty event.
In 2017, it collected about $589,000 from 1,962 cases and waived $212,000 in late charges, said communications coordinator Vanessa Castrogiovanni.
Still, that’s only a small fraction of the residents with suspended licenses in the county.
State data shows that nearly 50,000 Pinellas County drivers had their licenses suspended or revoked last year— roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Pinellas Park.
Castrogiovanni said the focus of the event is on helping residents with “getting back on the road so they can get closer to getting on with their plans” rather than on collecting outstanding fees.
Residents who go to Pinellas’ Operation Green Light event could save up to a quarter of the total outstanding debt, Castrogiovanni said.
She said the office has the ability to waive the 25% charge that gets tacked onto an outstanding fine when it is sent to a collections agency after 90 days. She said the office cannot waive other late fees or reduce the initial amount of a fine during Operation Green Light.
So even with the amnesty, residents would still have to pay the majority of their outstanding fines.
An unpaid $166 ticket can end up costing $236.25 after it goes into collections after 90 days, said Connie Daniels, the office’s director of court and operational services. During Operation Green Light, the office could waive up to $47.25 of that.
Then, of course, residents would still need to pay the $60 cost to get their license reinstated.
Castrogiovanni said residents can choose to go on a payment plan to pay off the outstanding fines but noted there is a $25 administration fee to do so.
She said that, in prior events, people have paid outstanding fines for cases including expired registrations, failure to wear a seatbelt, possession of marijuana and trespassing.
The majority of other Florida counties are also holding similar Operation Green Light events this month, although details and savings vary by county. Both Pasco and Hernando counties are holding events on Saturday. Hillsborough plans to hold its event sometime in March.
Couture, with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said she doesn’t think the reinstatement events solve the problem of driver’s license suspensions, and said she worries such events could give people false hope that they will get more financial help than what the programs typically offer.
Pinellas’ program will run from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, and from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, at the Pinellas County Justice Center, 14250 49th St. N., Clearwater.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will be on site Wednesday and Thursday with their Florida Licensing on Wheels vehicle to print new licenses on the spot.