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Md. Attorney General Frosh pushes for end to drivers losing licenses over traffic debt

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) is pushing to ban the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for traffic debt.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) is pushing to ban the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for traffic debt. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Jason Butler spent a month in jail years ago for driving after his license was suspended because he failed to pay court fees related to a minor infraction.

On Tuesday, Butler, 36, stood beside Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) as Frosh called for an end to the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.

Such suspensions are commonplace and affect tens of thousands of Marylanders, Frosh said, noting that lawmakers have told him that they, too, had temporarily lost their licenses for unpaid fines.

“What happens to just plain folks is that they get sucked into a vortex of punishment and poverty,” Frosh said. “They can’t afford to pay the fine or fee; they lose their driver’s license; they end up driving on a suspended license sometimes just to get to work.”

Maryland would join the District, Virginia and a couple of other states that have taken action over the past two years to address what advocates call the “criminalization of poverty” by tackling debt-based suspensions. A 2018 Washington Post analysis found that more than 7 million people across the country may have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debts.

Last year, Virginia enacted a temporary ban of debt-based driver’s license suspensions and reinstated driving privileges for hundreds of thousands of residents. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is pushing for a permanent ban of the practice, part of a larger package of bills intended to address racial disparities and eliminate practices that disproportionately affect minority communities.

The Post study found that at least 41 states and the District suspended or revoked licenses to drivers who failed to pay traffic tickets or appear in court to respond to traffic tickets. Advocates for the poor have called for ending such suspensions and revocations since a 2015 federal investigation revealed that law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo., used license reinstatement fines to raise revenue for state and local governments.

Butler said he wrote to Frosh’s office about a year ago to tell him how he lost his job and his apartment while he sat in jail for a month for driving on a suspended license. He had been given a ticket for failing to signal and had not paid the penalty or court fees because he was “struggling to pay bills” to support his family.

“These laws that exist, they unfairly punish people for their inability to pay,” said Butler, who lives in Baltimore.

Frosh was joined by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who introduced legislation on the matter last year, when it failed to move out of committee.

With new, more liberal leadership in both chambers, the legislation likely stands a better chance this year.

Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County), who is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate, called it long overdue and said drivers will not “get off scot free.” They would still have to pay their court fines, possibly through a civil judgment, he noted, but they would not be subject to losing their licenses.

The bill does not expunge offenses from people’s records, but Ferguson said it may be worth looking at that option, as well.

“The Maryland General Assembly needs to do as much as we can to stop making incarceration a scarlet letter that prevents people from getting a job, from going to work, from taking care of their kids,” Ferguson said. “We have got to be more thoughtful.”

Va. driver’s licenses, suspended for unpaid court debt, to be reinstated July 1

More than 7 million people may have lost driver’s licenses because of traffic debt

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