Legislators hope to save license suspension reform bill

Author: Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – As the Florida legislative session nears its end, some lawmakers are in a race against time to correct what they say is an injustice to the working poor: the suspension of driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to driving violations.

License suspensions can result from a minor infraction and can lead to thousands of dollars in debt as collection charges pile up and people can’t get their licenses back, said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

“The stories are heartbreaking of individuals who got a minor fine or a fee and it snowballs,” Brandes said. “Then they can’t get to work or get their kids to day care,” without risking more fines for driving with a suspended license.

However, a bill by Brandes and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, may die because it could cut revenue to clerk of court offices. Florida clerks face a $40 million deficit and are heavily dependent on fines and fees from traffic cases, said Tallahassee lobbyist Fred Baggett. As staffing dwindles, citizens seeking services in clerks’ offices are experiencing longer wait times and hold times.

Baggett, who represents the clerks, said the threat of license suspensions is their most effective tool to force payment of other fees.

“We’re not saying this is bad public policy. It’s probably a good thing,” he said of the bill. “We’re just saying please be aware of the consequences.”

Brandes said he’ll modify the bill to lessen the clerks’ concerns, possibly reducing it to a pilot project in a few counties. He’ll try for last-minute passage in the Senate, and then hope to attach it to a House bill as an amendment.

“Stranger things have happened,” said state Rep. Dana Young, another backer, asked whether that’s possible.

Florida law allows license suspension for such infractions as misdemeanor thefts and truancy. It’s automatic for failure to pay traffic fines or any criminal fines.

After 90 days, a clerk refers the debt to a collection agency, which can add up to 40 percent collection fees. When the debt is paid, license reinstatement costs at least $60.

The bill would reduce the number of offenses for which license suspension is prescribed and prohibit suspensions for those who show in court an inability to pay fines and fees.

A recent state study said the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles suspended 1.3 million driver’s licenses in fiscal year 2012-13, and 167,000 were for non-driving reasons, mainly failure to pay fines or court fees or child support.

Rouson cited the case of Felicia Johnson, an unemployed mental health worker in St. Petersburg whose license was – unbeknownst to her – suspended because she failed to pay car insurance premiums. The woman was caught driving with a suspended license, and it was revoked.

In an interview, Johnson said she ultimately had to pay more than $3,000 for fines, court costs and collection fees to get her license back.

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