TALLAHASSEE — Legislation aimed at ending the practice of suspending drivers' licenses for non-driving-related offenses got unanimous approval at its last committee stop in the Florida Senate on Wednesday, a move proponents say will end the unfair hurdles the penalties impose on the poor and disabled.
The bill, SB 7046, removes the penalty of driver's license suspension for a list of crimes unrelated to driving — such as graffiti by a minor, truancy and failure to pay court fees. It also reduces the length of the suspension, when it is allowed, from one year to six months and provides an alternative of community service for those who can demonstrate they can't afford to pay the court fines.
The bill also imposes new notice requirements designed to help defendants understand that if they can't afford the fees associated with using a public defender in a legal case, they have the option to do community service. When the court does impose fees, the bill sets up a new payment schedule that may not exceed 2 percent of a person's income and requires courts to offer the option of a payment plan. And in criminal traffic cases, the offender must be allowed the option of community service in lieu of payment if they can demonstrate they are below the poverty line and qualify for a public defender.
The bill is the brainchild of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, with the help of Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando. Brandes initiated the measure after reading a Miami Herald investigation that found that more than three-fourths of the driver's license suspensions in Florida were the result of incidents unrelated to driving, and 77 percent of all license suspensions between 2012 and 2015 occurred because of a failure to pay fees.
In Miami-Dade County alone, 29 percent of drivers have suspended licenses, the Herald found in its August report. That adds up to about 550,000 drivers, according to the county clerk of courts — the equivalent of filling an NFL stadium seven or eight times.
"The bill is a marvel of solutions for a system that is very unbalanced to indigent people, disabled people and people in bankruptcy who cannot afford to pay these large fees we now charge," said Nancy Daniels of the Florida Public Defenders Association. She acknowledged that the bill could result in less revenue collected by the clerks of courts in terms of fees, but "there is no one thing in the criminal justice system that is more burdensome to people than the current laws about suspended drivers' licenses."
Fred Baggett, lobbyist for the Florida Clerk of Courts Association, told the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee that while state economists could not determine how much the bill will reduce fees collected by the court system, their estimates vary from $17 million — if 10 percent of all fees paid are reduced — to $82 million, if 50 percent of fees paid are reduced.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that the system had become too dependent on the fines.
"We don't ever want a situation where we're relying on fines to run the system," he said. "That's not the purpose of fines. Fines are a penalty and a sanction."
Negron complimented law enforcement organizations for supporting the bill. "It's probably not a good idea to have people driving around with suspended licenses," he said.
Brandes, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the numbers proved that Florida's policy on driver's license suspensions is broken. The bill must be heard by the full Senate Appropriations Committee before a Senate vote.
A similar measure has two committee stops before it moves to the floor in the House.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.