Floridians with outstanding court fees, including from traffic violations, will be offered more affordable payment plans under a new state law taking effect Friday.
Instead of having to pay everything up front, people with fees can pay either $25 a month or 2% of their annual income, divided by 12 — whichever is greater.
Advocates heralded the bill, which was approved unanimously and which largely flew under the radar in a busy legislative session.
Sarah Couture, the Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said the bill will help Floridians struggling with fees avoid penalties like having their license suspended. The center said millions of Floridians have suspended licenses because of unpaid fees.
Though some counties, like Pinellas and Hillsborough, have offered payment plans for many years, Couture said this legislation makes using such plans more affordable.
The payment plans do not have interest, but the clerk may ask for a down payment or administrative processing fees. Processing fees can be a one-time charge of $25 or $5 per month of their plan, depending on what the individual clerk’s office selects. The law caps down payments at either $100 or 10% of the total owed, whichever is lower.
The justice center said more than 70% of driver’s license suspension notices are sent for unpaid fees, rather than for dangerous driving.
“They’re being punished, by their driver’s license being suspended, because of their poverty, because they can’t pay their fines and fees,” Couture said.
If someone is making regular payments on a plan, their license remains active, Couture said.
Ken Burke, the Pinellas County Clerk of Court, said the majority of people on payment plans in his county are paying off fines for traffic violations. He said a large number of people on payment plans do default on their payments, at which point their license becomes suspended.
County clerk’s offices rely on revenue from fees and fines to operate and pay salaries. The Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers supported the bill as part of its legislative priorities for the 2022 session.
Couture said offering low-cost payment plans makes sense from a business perspective, not just a justice one: If someone pays part of their fee, it’s better than nothing at all, she said.
“It’s the best for both parties,” said Doug Bakke, the chief deputy of the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court. “They get the case resolved and the clerks get the case balance down to zero.”