McClatchy's America

How one unpaid traffic ticket can lead to a vicious cycle of court trips, poverty

Larry Merriweather says he lost his driver’s license after a downturn in the economy in 2008 made it difficult for him to pay a traffic fine. Since then, he has racked up around $8,000 in tickets and fees, many for driving on a suspended license.
Larry Merriweather says he lost his driver’s license after a downturn in the economy in 2008 made it difficult for him to pay a traffic fine. Since then, he has racked up around $8,000 in tickets and fees, many for driving on a suspended license. The Wichita Eagle

Larry Merriweather runs a small business from Wichita in which he strips and waxes the floors of stores across Kansas.

In 2008, when the recession hit, he said his income fell from $63,000 to $21,000 in one year. As a result, he couldn’t pay a speeding ticket, and his license was suspended.

He couldn’t stop working, so he said every time he got pulled over, he would get additional fines and penalties, including having to pay bail when he was jailed for driving on a suspended license. He’s never had a DUI and hasn’t been in any accidents, he said.

Merriweather said he now owes about $8,000 in back fines.

“How can I make a living if I can’t get to my job?” Merriweather said. “I’m being treated like a criminal, and my crime is driving to work.”

As of November, more than 100,000 Kansans had their driver’s licenses suspended for not paying traffic tickets. That means there was about one suspended license for every 20 adults living in Kansas.

And this is a problem, according to Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a state senator who recently introduced legislation to help more people get restricted licenses so they can drive to work.

For advocates like Goudeau, taking away someone’s driver’s license because they can’t pay a fine makes it harder for them to get jobs, get out of poverty and, for some, escape the criminal justice system.

Politicians and courts across the country are wrestling with whether the ability to drive can be taken away because of a person’s inability to pay.

Politicians in Florida have proposed capping court payments at 2 percent of a person’s income. And governors in Virginia and California have proposed eliminating the suspension of driver’s licenses for nondriving offenses and unpaid court fees.

The Justice Department in November supported a class action lawsuit in Virginia that alleges nearly a million residents lost their licenses largely because they were poor.

“Suspending the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay fines or fees without inquiring into whether that failure to pay was willful or instead the result of an inability to pay,” the Justice Department wrote, “may result in penalizing indigent individuals solely because of their poverty.”

Restricted licenses

In September, nearly 300 Wichitans attended a workshop to get a special, limited restricted driver’s license that would allow someone whose license was previously suspended to travel to work, attend doctor’s appointments and church.

So many people showed up that the organizers didn’t have enough chairs, according to Sheila Officer, one of the organizers.

Of the nearly 300 there, about 25 successfully obtained a restricted driver’s license. State law doesn’t allow people who have been caught driving on a suspended license to obtain a restricted driver’s license.

Many who lose their licenses continue to drive. One recent study by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators found that 75 percent of people with suspended driver’s licenses continue to drive.

Goudeau’s bill, Senate Bill 5, would allow those caught driving on a suspended license to get a restricted driver’s license to get to work and church. The Transportation Committee approved the bill without any opposition, she said.

This would mean more drivers will have insurance, Faust-Goudeau said, because without a license, drivers can’t get insurance.

“To me, it’s a win-win: They’re driving legally, they’re paying on their fines, and they get insurance,” Faust-Goudeau said. “And the state and city, we collect revenue. Because who wants to get hit by a driver without insurance.”

Violators

Bobby Presley, 62, said he has not had a valid driver’s license since the 1970s, when he failed to pay a $75 fine on a ticket for not wearing his seatbelt.

He spent years working as a professional mover and now receives disability benefits. But he’s diabetic and wants to be able to go to the grocery store and to his doctor’s appointments.

He still owes about $2,000, he said, for tickets and fines. He continues to drive at times, and when he is pulled over, in addition to paying bail money, he sometimes has to pay $1,000 for a lawyer.

He hasn’t committed a felony since the 1980s, he said, when he was convicted of two drug crimes. Before the 1980s, a drug crime didn’t typically result in the confiscation of a license. Because of Presley’s suspended license, every time he is caught running a red light or speeding, he is taken to jail.

Niesha Howard, 28, has three kids and said she has no choice but to drive in order to carry on her ordinary life.

She gets paid $8 an hour at Goodwill but owes about $1,000 from two speeding tickets and fines. An officer recently had pity on her, she said, and gave her a ticket for driving without a license rather than the more serious charge of driving on a suspended license. The fine for the lesser charge was $300.

Some people may question her priorities, she said, but she didn’t want her kids to have to go without presents for Christmas.

This is the second time she’s had her license suspended for not paying fines. Last time, Howard ended up forking over the $600 she owed, she said, once she could afford it.

Summer Jackson, 37, hasn’t had a license for 15 years, she said, after she didn’t pay a ticket for a broken tail light. She was a single mother at the time who commuted from Haysville to her job in north Wichita, she said, and she was too poor to afford the ticket.

Instead of constantly living in fear of being pulled over and going to jail, Jackson said, she relies on friends and family to drive her. She owns her own car but has to pay people to drive her.

“I’m on a fixed income, and every little bit of money counts,” said Jackson, who now lives on disability payments and was hospitalized last week for a heart condition. “So if I have to pay someone $10 to $25 in my car that I insure myself and that I put in gas myself, it’s terrible. It’s terrible.”

Jackson said she’s never had a speeding ticket, let alone a DUI or a felony that would make her a driving risk. She recently learned that if she pays the $875 that she owes, she can get her driver’s license again for the first time since she was 22. One of her friends is going to pay for it out of his tax refund, and Jackson said she will pay him back.

Jackson can’t remember what it’s like to be a teenager anymore, but she thinks that’s what it will feel like to get her license after so many years.

An alternative

One of the big problems, Faust-Goudeau said, is that many people don’t realize they can call to arrange a payment schedule for tickets and fees. She has talked to police to make sure they inform drivers they have 10 days to set up a payment plan. That way, they can avoid losing their licenses in the first place, she said.

“A lot of people simply can’t afford it,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It’s no crime. It’s what I call the working poor, on limited income, and you get this ticket, a lot of people just avoid paying the ticket, hoping it will go away, and it won’t.”

Faust-Goudeau has worked with city leaders in the past to make it easier for people to pay what they owe. In 2015, the city of Wichita held an amnesty event that allowed nearly 1,000 people to avoid $136,000 in additional fees associated with having a warrant for their arrest. The participants still paid $89,000 in original fines. More than 500 were able to fully pay off their tickets.

She said licenses shouldn’t be suspended for anything other than driving under the influence, and she is looking into pursuing that.

Suspending a driver’s license is the first tool Sedgwick County uses when people don’t pay traffic tickets. If that doesn’t work, the unpaid fine is sent to a collection agency.

Changing the law could make it harder for local governments to collect fines.

“It is uniquely difficult to balance the public’s desire to make sure whoever is driving is properly insured and licensed with the driver’s ability to get access to gainful employment,” said Aaron Breitenbach, chief attorney for the traffic division in the Sedgwick County district attorney’s office.

The issue is more acute in Kansas than in more urban areas, according to Breitenbach. “This is not Chicago or New York City with robust public transit,” Breitenbach said. “In Wichita, at least, we have some buses to get around, but in large parts of Kansas, a car or truck is the only way to get around unless you want to walk 10 miles.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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