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Florida Suspends Driver’s Licenses For Unpaid Court Cases. Officials Are Pushing To Change That.

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Marq Mitchell got his license suspended when he was about 21 years old. 

He had two felony convictions — one stemming from his time as a teen in foster care and another from when he got into a fight after aging out of the system.

As a result of those cases he owed more than $4,000 dollars in court costs and fines. When he couldn’t afford to pay, the state suspended his driver’s license. 

“I would make small payments here and there and it wasn't enough to satisfy the requirements,” he said. 

In 2018, Florida suspended 1.7 million drivers licenses, about 10 percent of all licenses.

Listen to the audio version of this story.

For Mitchell and many other drivers who’ve had their licenses suspended, it had nothing to do with their actual driving. Florida has a long list of infractions that can lead to a license suspension. Failure to pay court costs  or forgetting a court date are among them. 

Other states like California, Mississippi and Virginia are starting to do away with suspending licenses for unpaid fines after advocates and people impacted by suspended licenses highlighted a wealth-based system that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and exacerbates a cycle of poverty by making it difficult for people to keep a job.

In Florida, the practice has gotten some scrutiny, but when it comes to reforms very little has changed. 

Mitchell, 29, was living near Orlando and working two jobs when he lost his license. The amount of money he owed continued to increase over time because the state of Florida allows for unpaid fines and fees to be turned over to a collection agency after 90 days.

The collection agencies can then add late fees and other fees — up to 40 percent on top of the original amount owed.

Once the debt is paid, to reinstate a license the person would have to pay at least $60 more. 

Mitchell started looking for a way out of this financial maze. He had gone four years without a license. In the meantime he relied on unreliable public transportation to get to work. He couldn’t attend college classes because the commute on a bus was too far from his job.

He searched the internet and taught himself how to file motions to convert some of his fines to community service hours.

“That probably was, you know, a job in itself is trying to figure it out,” he said. 

Mitchell, who now lives in Broward, is the president of a nonprofit called Chainless Change. He helps people with criminal convictions after they’re released from jail or prison. 

He says finding ways to convert some of his fines to community service hours instead of having to pay them is a short-term bandaid and not all courts offer that option. 

A long-term fix lies with Florida lawmakers. 

For four years in a row now Senator Jeff Brandes (R- St. Petersburg) has tried to reform Florida’s driver’s license suspension laws to prevent people from losing their driver’s  license for non-driving related issues.

“We’ve created this system — or it was created long before I joined the legislature — and now as we try to fix it you see there’s a lot of challenging hurdles,” he said. 

One of the biggest hurdles is that the state’s clerk of court and comptroller offices are funded by the fines and fees they collect.  

“For us, [the issue is] how do we fund the clerks that doesn’t require us to have it be on the back of people who have suspended driver’s licenses because, if we fix the issues of suspended drivers licenses, we create a 40 million dollar hole in the clerk of courts’ budgets,” said Brandes. 

For their part, many Florida court clerks are not satisfied with how their offices are funded. Though the agencies collect a significant amount of fines and fees, not all of that money stays with their office. Court clerks routinely complain to lawmakers that they are underfunded. 

“We asked that certain elements of the criminal division be paid for by general revenue instead of by fines and fees. We were not successful,” said Palm Beach Clerk of Court Sharon Bock who is past president of the statewide group of clerk of court and comptroller offices. 

Bock says clerk offices are limited in what they can do when it comes to suspended drivers licenses because that is regulated by the state.

“We are working within the system” said Bock. “We see the point and counterpoint you know. But we don't have the ability. We are not policy makers. We can't change the statutes.”

She says larger counties like hers in Palm Beach do have specialized programs for people who’ve had their driver’s license suspended. They can sign up for a payment plan  and have their driver’s license reinstated while they make payments.

But if for any reason a person in the program encounters financial hardships and can’t make a payment, their license gets suspended again.

WLRN reporter Danny Rivero contributed to this report. Photo credit: "At the DMV"by @cdharrison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Copyright 2019 WLRN 91.3 FM

Nadege Greencovers social justice issues for WLRN.