Advocates say the previous policy disproportionately impacted low-income people and people of color.

Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

New Yorkers will no longer have their licenses suspended for failing to pay off traffic tickets they can’t afford—a system advocates say disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color.

The New York Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act went into effect last week. The bill was first introduced to the legislature by State Sen. Tim Kennedy and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law in 2020.

According to data compiled by Driven by Justice, a coalition that’s been advocating for the legislation since 2019, New York issued nearly 1.7 million license suspensions because of traffic debt from January 2016 to April 2018.

Under the state Department of Motor Vehicles, a person’s license is suspended after they’ve racked up 11 points worth of moving violations on their driving record in an 18-month period. Different traffic violations result in different amounts of points: Running a red light will get you three points, failure to signal is two points and driving 31 to 40 mph above the speed limit is eight points.

A driver might have fewer than 11 points on their record, but if they fail to answer a traffic ticket, that can result in an immediate license suspension. Some violations that do not result in any points—like illegal parking, missing an inspection or driving an unregistered vehicle—can also lead to a license suspension if the driver fails to respond.

The Traffic Violations Bureau, an arm of the DMV, says drivers who receive traffic tickets should respond—plead guilty and pay it off, or plead not guilty and schedule a hearing—within 15 days from when the ticket was issued.

About 75 percent of drivers with suspensions continue to drive, Driven by Justice says. Many will risk further legal entanglements so they can get to work, buy food at the grocery store, bring their kids to school and child care facilities or visit a doctor’s office, advocates say.

The coalition also found that New York courts issued traffic debt suspensions in the lowest income communities at nine times the rate of the state’s wealthiest communities. Black and Latino communities received traffic debt suspensions at four times the rate of the whitest communities. 

“It’s a real problem of both racial and economic justice the way we do this enforcement,” said Katie Adamides of Fines and Fees Justice Center, one of the many groups in the coalition. 

“It’s exciting that we ended disproportionate suspension for non-payment, but we haven’t ended disproportionate policing. We haven’t ended disproportionate ticketing,” Katie Adamides continued. “The reality is that these kinds of fees, for some people, will be a minor inconvenience, and for other people, they may as well be a million dollars.”

Over-policing of traffic violations leads to a more complicated and long-lasting form of violence by introducing New Yorkers to the criminal justice system, Transportation Alternatives—a non-profit that advocates for traffic safety as well as biking, walking and public transit improvement in the city—said in a report published last year.

“Consider what happens after an unaffordable traffic summons or parking ticket is left unpaid. Under New York law, this unpaid violation can lead to serious consequences, from a suspended license to jail time,” the report says. “One study found that 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs after their license was suspended.” TA called for the state to pilot the use of sliding-scale fines and to offer non-monetary options for resolving violations to low-income drivers.

Under the new state law, drivers can prove they can’t afford to pay traffic tickets by filing out a payment plan application on the state Department of Motor Vehicles website.

“You have to explain what your income is, deducting any legal requirements you have to pay,” Adamides said. “The DMV takes a look at your application, and then your payment is 2 percent of your monthly income or $25 per month, whichever is greater.” 

For people who already have suspended licenses because of traffic debt, those cases should be removed from their driving record automatically, Adamides said.

“That said, anytime a new law is implemented, sometimes there are hiccups, but it should be that folks don’t have to do anything to stop being suspended for non-payment,” she said. 

While Driven for Justice sees the legislation as a huge win, Adamides said the final bill was a compromise as opposed to a mission accomplished.

“I don’t want to minimize how important it is that people will no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended for their inability to pay routine traffic tickets,” she said, “but New York state still suspends driver’s licenses for not answering a traffic ticket or not appearing for a traffic ticket at a hearing.”

Adamides said there are plenty of reasons a person wouldn’t appear in court that have no indication of their safe driving abilities.

“Sometimes people miss their notice, and they don’t even know they’re expected to appear at all. Sometimes they know they’re supposed to appear, but they’re afraid to appear because they don’t have the money,” she said. “Taking the day off work, getting child care, having transportation to the hearing—all of these issues disproportionately harm low-income people.”

One thought on “Traffic Debt No Longer a Cause for License Suspension in New York

  1. This is … problematic.

    A driver’s license isn’t a right. It’s a license — to operate a motor vehicle in accordance with relevant laws. If these laws are violated, the license can be suspended or revoked. And it should be. A driver’s license isn’t a license to maim and kill, with no consequences.

    What’s problematic: historic enforcement of *all* laws — motor vehicle laws included — has been far from neutral. The article properly acknowledges enforcement that’s weighed more heavily on some communities compared to others.

    Good news specific to motor vehicle laws: red-light and speeding enforcement by camera. Cameras ARE neutral observers.

    Camera enforcement of moving violations results in civil complaints against the vehicle’s registered owner, not a criminal complaint against the driver. And yes, after accumulated moving violations, a vehicle’s registration should be suspended and — eventually revoked.

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