Personal Narrative: Melanie

Melanie is a white, 45-year-old resident of South Carolina. As a mother, she tries her best to care for her children but she has not been able to provide basic healthcare for them for years due to her license suspension. Melanie works as a property manager, a position that requires traveling between multiple properties. Without a license, she is restricted to overseeing one site which only allows for part-time hours. She has not been able to work full-time since her license was suspended because of an unpaid speeding ticket from before 2013 when she was living in Binghamton, New York. The court found Melanie guilty of speeding but did not inform her that her license would be suspended if she did not pay the ticket. Melanie was unemployed at the time and could not afford to settle this debt.

Some time after her case was disposed, Melanie was driving her mother-in-law’s car when she was pulled over. The officer informed her that her license was suspended and slammed her with a driving without a valid license ticket when she could not afford to pay the ticket she already had. Melanie was not aware that her license was not in good standing so when she discovered this, she called the court to inquire how much she owed. The court clerk listed a number of fees that were tacked onto her original fine and Melanie could not imagine how she was going to pay off this balance on little to no income. Unfortunately for Melanie and thousands of other New Yorkers, courts do not offer payment plans and rarely offer people the opportunity to perform community service in lieu of paying fines and fees.

Melanie relocated to South Carolina with hopes of better employment opportunities but her license suspension in New York followed her. She was denied a regular license and even a conditional driver’s license, which would have allowed her to travel to necessary locations such as her children’s school and work. Instead, she spends a lot of her limited income on ubers to get to these common destinations since the public transit system is poor. In addition to the financial drain that her license suspension continues to cause, the health of her family is at risk since she cannot acquire insurance. Melanie has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and a tumor on her hip that she has not seen a doctor about because she does not have the means to do so. Nor can her children, who are under 18, visit the doctor or get regular check-ups.

Melanie does not know when she will be able to escape this poverty trap of court debt especially because the New York State driver responsibility assessment fee compounds her mounting debt every year. Melanie approximates that she may owe between four and $5000 but does not doubt that she may owe more. Because of this experience and what she observed in her community, she described the culture of policing and the court system with this quote: “If they can get money out of you or harass you somehow, they will”.