NY Restricts Driver’s License Suspensions That Criminalize Poverty

    After waiting until the last possible day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill to greatly restrict driver’s license suspensions on December 31, 2020. The bill was passed by the legislature last July, but needed Cuomo’s signature by the end of the year to become law. Advocates say it’s a significant blow against over-policing and the criminalization of poverty in New York State.

    “This bill is a huge win for tens of thousands of New Yorkers that are currently trapped in a cycle of punishment and poverty,” said Katie Adamides, the New York State director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which lobbied for the legislation as part of the Driven by Justice Coalition. “We’re allowing safe drivers to get back on the road, instead of creating a cycle of criminalization which we saw just ruining people’s lives unnecessarily.”

    Under the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, drivers will no longer have their licenses suspended if they have unpaid traffic tickets. Instead, they will be offered repayment plans at 2 percent of their monthly income or $25 per month, whichever is greater. The act will also reinstate the licenses of those who have had licenses suspended for non-payment in the past. Licenses can still be suspended for missing traffic court hearings, but will be reinstated when the person enters into a payment plan.

    “In transit deserts like where I live, that’s huge. It’s giving them a way out, and a way up.”

    People whose licenses had been suspended “will have the opportunity to get back on the road and pay a plan that is related to their income and be able to get to their COVID drive-through test, and be able to get to their kids’ school, and be able to get to work,” Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the New York State Assembly, told Filter. “In transit deserts like where I live, that’s huge. It’s not shirking their responsibility. It’s giving them a way out, and a way up.”

    From 2016 to 2018, New York suspended the licenses of nearly 1.7 million drivers. These suspensions most heavily targeted low-income communities and communities of color, as a  Driven by Justice Coalition report detailed. Suspensions often stem from multi-ticket stops, where drivers can rack up thousands of dollars of fines in a single encounter, much more than many people with low or even moderate incomes can afford to pay back at once.

    Katie Schaffer, the director of organizing and advocacy at the Center For Community Alternatives, noted that the law will minimize police encounters, including for people who use drugs. “What this system does is put people at risk of further contact with the police system,” she told Filter. “Once you’ve been pulled over and they’ve found a suspended license, you’re at risk of having your car searched.”

    Charles George Jones, an advocate with the Center For Community Alternatives, has had his license suspended since 2016. He began to accrue fines after being hit with a $250 ticket for not having his license plate light on during the daytime. In the course of this stop, the officer added a fine for failing to stop at a stop sign, at the time a $233 ticket.

    After one stop during which he received nine tickets, “I get in the house and I just bust out crying, [saying] ‘I just don’t know what to do,’” Jones said.

    “I ain’t even supposed to be riding a bike, but I gotta get her her medication.”

    By the time his license was suspended, he had accrued fines of $4,500, which Jones said has now risen to at least $7,200 due to interest. Despite being disabled, Jones bikes to the nearest pharmacy in Mastic Beach, Suffolk County, to get medication for his fiancee.

    “I ain’t even supposed to be riding a bike, but I gotta get her her medication,” Jones told Filter. He hopes to have his license reinstated under the new law.

    In some regards, the bill was a compromise. The Driven By Justice Coalition had sought more gradual repayment plans, an end to suspensions for those who miss traffic court, and immediate implementation of the law. While parts of the law will go into effect next month, full implementation will take 180 days, meaning that some impacted people will not have their licenses restored until June.

    Schaffer added that the law would provide particular relief to people who are dealing with substance use issues, and need to drive to access support or outpatient treatment. “For people who have substance use needs, that kind of life destabilization and inability to access services and support adds an additional layer of destabilizing force,” she said of license suspensions.

    Multiple states have passed similar laws in the past several years, including liberal states such as California and Oregon, and conservative ones like Montana and Mississippi. Filter recently reported on Michigan’s expected adoption of such a reform.

    “This is taking off across the country because it’s got bipartisan support,” from actors ranging from President-Elect Joe Biden to the conservative organization Right on Crime, Adamides said.

    But even so, she added, New York’s bill “is just the first step. There’s much more advocacy work to be done.”


    Photograph via Pixy.org

    • Sam is a journalist living in New York City. His reporting focuses on electoral politics, labor and criminal justice. His writing has appeared in The Appeal, Jacobin, THE CITY and New York Focus.

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