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Press Release: NY Legislature Sends Driver’s License Suspension Reform Bill to Gov. Cuomo’s Desk

NY Legislature Sends Driver’s License Suspension Reform Bill to Gov. Cuomo’s

Legislation Would End Widespread Driver’s License Suspensions for Unpaid Traffic Debt

Today, the New York Senate joined the Assembly in passing the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act.

The vast majority of New York driver’s license suspensions are for traffic tickets that residents cannot afford to pay. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers can’t legally drive simply because they are trapped in a cycle of traffic debt.

The new law would end license suspensions due to traffic debt, while making affordable payment plans available (at 2% of a person’s monthly income or $10/month, whichever is greater).  The reform would also reinstate the licenses of people who currently have a suspended license due to traffic debt.

Between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt.  Because Black and Latinx people are disproportionately stopped, ticketed, charged and convicted, this cycle of poverty and punishment especially burdens their families and communities.

In the last three years, nine U.S. states (Texas, Montana, Idaho, California, Mississippi, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Oregon) have passed similar legislation to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

“Today’s vote brings New York closer to ending harmful driver’s license suspension policies that fuel mass criminalization, economic inequality, and racial injustice,” said Katie Adamides, New York State Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Families are increasingly struggling to make ends meet during COVID-19 — now is the time to stop this vicious cycle of poverty and punishment.”

“At this time of global pandemic, New Yorkers need driver’s licenses so they can safely travel to work and care for their families. Yet our current suspension laws prevent low-income people—especially people of color—from accessing this critical tool for economic mobility and survival,” said Claudia Wilner, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “We cheer the passage of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, and we urge Governor Cuomo to sign the legislation as soon as possible.”

“We applaud Assembly Member Hunter and Senator Kennedy for their leadership in ensuring the passage of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act and taking a major step forward to end the cruel and counterproductive criminalization of poverty,” said Ranit Patel, Equal Justice Works Fellow at The Bronx Defenders. “Suspending driver’s licenses because of traffic debt needlessly brings thousands of people into the criminal legal system every year and exacerbates and perpetuates racial disparities in the system. In the midst of a devastating economic crisis, low-income New Yorkers should not have to choose between their health and livelihood on the one hand and a criminal charge, more fines and fees, and even jail time, on the other, all because they could not afford to pay their traffic fines. The Senate’s vote today brings us one step closer to relieving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of this impossible choice.”

“Ending wealth-based driver’s license suspensions breaks the cycle of debt that exacerbates racial and economic disparities, denies access to opportunity, and perpetuates mass incarceration,” said Erika Lorshbough, deputy policy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Up until now, thousands of New Yorkers had their licenses suspended every year just because they couldn’t afford to pay traffic court fines. The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act is an important piece of ending the dangerous impacts of racist policing and wealth inequality, and we’re thrilled to see it become law. Driver’s license suspensions should be used for the limited purpose of keeping unsafe drivers off of the road, not as a debt-collection mechanism.”

“Enacting the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act is fundamental as New Yorkers continue to cope with the devastating financial impact of COVID-19,” said Ron Deutsch, Executive Director of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “No one should lose their license because they lack the financial resources to cover traffic debt. Speaker Carl E. Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did the right thing for New Yorkers and we look forward to Governor Andrew Cuomo promptly signing this bill into law.”

“Our legal system criminalizes poverty,” said Katie Schaffer, Director of Advocacy and Organizing at Center for Community Alternatives. “Ending the damaging practice of suspending driver’s licenses for an inability to afford fines and fees is a critical first step in the larger project of dismantling systems of criminalization and incarceration that target working-class people and Black and brown communities.”

“New Hour applauds the passage of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act which will allow an overwhelming majority of justice impacted women the chance to succeed as returning citizens,” said Serena Liguori, Executive Director of New Hour. “This Act will allow women and mothers the ability to move beyond the detrimental and often lifelong collateral consequences of incarceration.”

“The Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act will help thousands of low income drivers in the city of Buffalo and statewide, who are over-ticketed and are unable to pay the fines and associated fees,” said Jalonda Hill of Buffalo’s Fair Fines and Fees Coalition.  “Especially considering the city of Buffalo has some of the highest traffic fees in the entire state!” 

“The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) calls on Gov. Cuomo to sign the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act,” said Aqua Porter, Interim Executive Director of RMAPI. “Under current law, thousands of New Yorkers have driver’s licenses suspended every year simply because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees, leaving them with an impossible choice—losing their ability to drive and potentially their livelihood as well, or risking criminal charges and additional fines and fees. Research from across the country shows that these suspensions disrupt lives, cause economic instability, and criminalize poverty – disproportionately impacting black and brown communities.”

“We applaud the passage of the License Suspension Reform Act, which abolishes the regressive practice of criminalizing New Yorkers who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. “It is more urgent now than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, that Governor Cuomo promptly sign this bill into law so that New Yorkers can safely get to their essential jobs, attend medical appointments, and care for family.”

To learn more about this issue, visit: drivenbyjustice.org

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