Senator: FL license suspension laws target poor

- Florida suspends people's driving privileges often for issues that do not relate to their driving records, but state Senator Jeff Brandes says it's crushing the working poor.

Thousands of people face soaring debts and lose their licenses because they can't pay what they owe.

Ricardo Torres of Tampa was in traffic court in January. He said his life fell apart after a small claims judgment. He owed some money, and agreed to pay around $5,000.

"I actually put in around half of the payments, but from there I lost my job," he said. "It's really frustrating and it's not fair."

With no job, he fell behind on his payments. The state responded by yanking his driving privileges as a penalty.

Torres said he could not find work without a license, and it cost his family. He said they struggled and could not afford presents for his children on their birthdays or Christmas.

"I have no criminal record. I have an associate's degree… It's real painful, wanting to be able to provide and not being able to. It's difficult," he said.

The state also suspended Rashea Smith's license because he could not afford the fees and court costs for a citation for an improper tag, red light camera violation and no proof of insurance  

Smith is a Navy veteran, and commercial truck driver -- or was until he lost his license three years ago. He said losing his license over a debt he could not afford cost him his livelihood and his home.

"I don't care how good you are. Nobody will hire you if you don't have a license," said Smith. "It brought me down to go to food banks to figure out what I'm going to eat."

In a day of traffic court, case after case comes forward with someone who struggled with debts, then fell behind and lost their ability to drive as a result

"And the worst part about it, if you want to go on the payment plan, it's 40-percent to go on the payment plan," said Brandes.  "It was an additional way to penalize, but what it has become is a way to fund the court system, and that's what I find so horrendous about what's happened."

State records show Florida suspended more than a million licenses last year, and more than 578,000 of those were for failing to pay fines.

LINK: Read the full review of driver's license suspensions across the state (PDF)

"They thought 'the courts need to be funded, so let the courts raise the fines and fees,'" said Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank. "The people who can pay their fines, fees and costs just do it and get on with their lives. They don't lose their licenses. So it's affecting the very poor."

The state also suspend parents' licenses when their children skip school or possess tobacco. A license can also be suspended for bad checks, falling behind on child support and much more.
"I think there has to be a balance here somewhere," Frank said.

Senator Brandes is trying to change the law to reduce the number of suspensions -- particularly for debts drivers struggle to pay and for issues unrelated to driving. His legislation is scheduled to go before committee mid-February. 

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