TALLAHASSEE — Matthew Holland left prison prepared to get a job, but the Spring Hill resident wasn’t prepared for the $3,000 in court fees, the 45-day deadline to pay it, the driver’s license suspension when he didn’t have the cash, or the 10-year toll it would take on his plan to reenter society.
“They shouldn’t be able to suspend your license because you can’t afford to pay your tickets or your fees,’’ said Holland 32, who has a steady job, a wife and two kids but has been without a license for the last 10 years.
“The goal of the American dream is to be able to provide for your family, and when they take away your ability to do that, they take away your dream.”
Two million people — one in eight drivers — in Florida has a suspended driver’s license and Holland is among the thousands punished because they haven’t paid fines imposed for traffic tickets, toll violations and criminal convictions regardless of ability to pay.
Research by state auditors and a recent study by the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center shows that Florida’s system adversely and disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.
“Black people have suspended driver’s licenses on average 1.5 times the rate they are represented in the general population,’’ the report concluded.
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Of the suspensions issued from 2016 to 2018, 77% of were still in effect October 2019, and 72% of were for unpaid fines and fees, not for unsafe driving, the researchers found.
With Florida’s meager public transit system, many of those people make the choice Holland made: “I would drive and risk possibly go to jail, or not drive and risk losing my job and getting evicted,” he said.
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The inevitable conclusion, said Ashley Thomas, Florida director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Floridians with suspended licenses are being punished for driving while broke.
“It’s just digging a deeper hole for people who are already having a hard time making payments,’’ she said.
Two conservative Republicans now say it’s time to end the practice of suspending licenses for inability to pay. Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, has filed SB 1328, which was reviewed Tuesday in a workshop held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, has filed HB 903.
If passed, Florida would join six other states including Kentucky and Mississippi that have eliminated their driver licenses suspension penalties. Five other states are adopting similar legislation, including tough-on-crime states like Texas and Georgia.
Under the proposals, drivers would be allowed to set up a uniform payment plan in all 67 counties but, instead of the patchwork plans imposed by clerks of courts in each county, the legislation would create consistency. Clerks would be required to set up monthly payment amounts of 2% of the person’s average monthly income or $10 a month, whichever is greater.
The proposals also would eliminate the monthly payment plan fees and allow clerks to charge a one-time administrative fee, but charge no more than $5 for people who qualify for a public defender. Individuals whose driver licenses have been suspended before July 1, 2020, solely for the failure to pay fines or other costs may have their licenses reinstated upon payment of a reinstatement fee.
The measure has the support of many companies who employ low-wage workers and drivers: the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Truckers Association and Uber.
But it also faces a powerful opponent: the Florida County Clerks of Court who argue that ending fees on poor people will cost counties between $21 million and $51 million in annual revenue.
By contrast, conservative think tanks the James Madison Institute and the Reason Foundation have each done studies and estimate that license suspensions for failure to pay cost the Florida courts over $40 million a year.
In recent years, state officials have allowed counties to expand the use of fines and fees to fund court systems but have done little to discourage the widespread use of traffic citations that disproportionately disadvantage minority drivers.
Patshawndria Ivey, 22, of West Little River in Miami-Dade County has spent much of her driving life with a suspended license. She got her first ticket when driving a friend’s car with expired tags when she was 16. She agreed to a payment plan of $25 a month but, after she moved to Georgia, she didn’t keep up the payments.
She moved back to Florida and the fine had gone to a debt collector and ballooned to nearly $500. In February 2019, while four months pregnant and working for a food delivery service, Ivey was pulled over. The officer noted her suspended license and put her in jail.
“I was crying and miserable, but it only lasted overnight,’’ she says now. “I understand there are rules and consequences, but they should think of the person’s actual income. Everybody can’t afford to pay a $500 ticket, you know.”
Her challenges continue. Her mother has been in and out of the hospital since November. Her younger siblings and seven-month-old daughter need to get to the doctor and school appointments. So Ivey takes more chances and drives.
“This whole system is unfair,’’ she said. “It’s not considerate of the people who are indigent. We don’t have anything.”
Lots of suspended licenses
Miami-Dade County has one of the highest suspension rates in the state with an estimated 250,000 suspension notices a year, the Fines and Fees report found. That’s nearly twice the rate as Hillsborough’s and almost three times Pinellas’ rate. Some rural counties have the highest share of people driving with a suspended license.
The report details the debt spiral: a minimum wage worker in Florida grosses $338 a week, 14% of Floridians live in poverty, and a traffic ticket left unpaid can trigger years of financial hardship.
Finding housing may be more difficult without a driver’s license as many landlords require a copy of a driver’s license and may favor those who can provide the information. Insurance premiums can also be higher for previously suspended drivers, and employers who look at driving records often cannot always distinguish between suspensions due to unsafe driving behaviors or failure to pay.
Holland knows the cycle. He entered prison at age 18, after a breaking into cars to steal stereos with his buddies for drug money. He now has a regular job on the night shift at a warehouse, but his wife drives him to work at 10 each night and picks him up at 5:30 each morning. His kids, ages 8 and 6, wake up to go with their mom to drop off and pick up dad.
During the day — three times a week — Holland either walks or takes a bus from his home to get drug tested and fulfill the terms of his drug court sentence. (He was caught possessing weed in 2018 in violation of his parole.) Two times a week he asks friends for rides to his addiction recovery meetings.
“I’ve taken over 400 drug tests and they all come back negative,’’ he boasted recently. He is now working with the Hernando County Clerk of Court’s office to negotiate converting some of his fines to community service. But it’s been a long slog.
“Getting my license is like a first step to my goals,’’ he said. “I’d like to give my wife a break, get a second car and do a lot of things. Because I don’t have a license, there’s a lot of things they don’t let me do.”
Local situations differ
The Tampa City Council recently issued a resolution in support of ending license suspension for unpaid fines and fees, and Hillsborough County will be considering a similar resolution this week. But the disparity in how counties handle the issue is vast.
Orange County, for example, has the highest rate of suspensions, with 14.99% of the driving population. without a license. Glades County is next highest with 14.4 % of its drivers with suspended licenses. Miami-Dade is third with 12.3 % of its driving population with suspended licenses.
Pasco has 3.92% and Pinellas has 4.83% of its driving population without a license. Hernando has 5.9% and Hillsborough has 6.59% without a license. All four counties in Tampa Bay were below the state average of 7.33%.
Here are the Fines and Fees Justice Center findings in Florida, including a map of suspensions by county: