Stop the Madness of Suspending Drivers’ Licenses for Non-Driving Offenses

Oct 18, 2015 by

Are you driving in Florida with a suspended driver’s license? No? Are you sure?

Many Florida drivers have no idea their license is suspended.

Drivers’ licenses are suspended for reasons far beyond having a bad driving record. And Florida exceeds many other states in criminalizing the activity of Driving While License Suspended (DWLS), making it a felony in some cases. The state law also ties many non-driving-related activities as cause to suspend the license.

The following stats should both surprise and disturb you.

State records indicate that more than 1.5 million Florida drivers have had their licenses suspended for non-driving activity.

In one county alone — Miami-Dade — it is estimated that 29 percent of all drivers have had their licenses suspended.

If you’re one of the 1.5 million with a suspended license, you might end up in court, in jail or in prison. You might have to hire an attorney. If you’re lucky, you might just have to pay some fees, fines, reinstatement costs and jump through bureaucratic hoops.

During my time in the Florida Senate, I had the opportunity to serve as chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. We learned there were inmates in the state prison system for driving on a suspended driver’s license. The underlying cause for the suspension was failure to pay a fee or fine.

Wow! That seems a little disproportionate.

Consider this.

Your neighbor Joe loses his job. He falls behind on paying his auto insurance or traffic ticket or child support. Joe’s license is suspended. He may or may not know it. He drives to job interviews or even to a new job. Joe is stopped, and arrested for driving with a suspended license. Joe may spend time in a county jail but if sentenced to a year and a day or more, he will be sent to a state prison even though he is neither violent nor a danger to public safety.

We have roughly 101,000 adult inmates in our state prisons — 53 percent are violent offenders. The average cost to incarcerate an adult male inmate is approximately $20,000 a year.

Those incarcerated for DWLS can be sentenced for a minimum of a year and a day up to five years. It’s estimated that Florida had 1,662 DWLS inmates in 2007 — at an estimated cost of $33 million. Hard to see how this is a good use of our tax dollars.

There are other monetary and social costs.

Family members might turn to the state for financial support while their loved one is incarcerated. Not to mention it’s a terribly inefficient way to collect the fees and fines that started this criminal snowball.

While not violent when they went in, they may be violent when they leave– hardened by years of being housed with dangerous felons. When they finally leave, they have a felony record, making it harder for them to find jobs, support their families and lead a productive life.

We tried in the Senate to remove the felony sanctions for driving while license suspended but the House wasn’t interested. The majority of states, including Texas, more reasonably treat DWLS as a misdemeanor.

More should be done to reform Florida’s over-reliance on suspending drivers’ licenses. Right now it’s inappropriately used to collect debts, often times for people struggling to pay. Licenses are suspended for failure to pay a fee or fine such as traffic tickets, falling behind on child support and letting auto insurance coverage lapse.

And mistakes can happen. Your license might be suspended if the traffic school fails to submit proper notice that you attended or if an insurance company doesn’t timely inform authorities of your compliance.

Your license can also be suspended for underage tobacco use, graffiti, truancy and drug offenses such as marijuana possession. The Legislature added additional offenses — expanding the list over the past two decades.

The state tacks on additional fees for drivers to get their licenses reinstated after the original financial obligations are met. This policy disproportionately affects the working poor. Are we back to the days of debtor’s prisons?

But there’s good news. Someone in a position to help is paying attention and taking action. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is holding hearings and has requested information from the clerks of court, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Department of Corrections. Kudos to Sen. Brandes!

Let’s remove felony sanctions for driving while license suspended and only suspend drivers’ licenses for driving-related infractions. And let’s find alternatives to assist individuals to work off their debts.

This affects millions in our state. Don’t Floridians deserve better?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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