Cutting Red Tape
Best practices for license suspension reviewed to address burden of “driving while poor”
In 2018, AAMVA published its guide, Reducing Suspended Drivers and Alternative Reinstatement Best Practices, which recommended that jurisdictions limit the suspension of driving privileges to those drivers who commit highway safety-related violations. Part of the reasoning behind these recommendations was that younger drivers often had a hard time paying fines and court fees for offenses such as school truancy or parking tickets, and it was more important to suspend the licenses of people who had driving violations that were directly related to safety on the roads.
Marcy Coleman, assistant administrator for the Safety and Regulations Division of Motor Vehicles for Rhode Island, who was a member of the 2017 working group, points out another compelling reason for re-examining suspension practices: “It becomes clear that an extraordinarily large amount of resources are being shifted away from the MVA’s main focus of ensuring that individuals who are licensed are capable of safely operating motor vehicles. In the event that suspensions based on non-highway safety-related offenses could be reduced or even eliminated, MVAs would save time and money.”
While some jurisdictions adopted these guidelines in the years since, many others have not. The problem of license suspensions for failure to pay is now seen as a punishment that falls disproportionately on citizens with fewer means to pay, who are then caught in a downward spiral of unpaid fines and fees.
In light of this, several AAMVA subject matter experts came together to revise and strengthen the best practices recommendations. Brian Ursino, director of Law Enforcement for AAMVA, was part of the team.
“This has been a hot topic nationally, particularly within state legislatures, where bills have been introduced that address or attempt to address the phenomenon that many people refer to as ‘driving while poor,’” Ursino reports. “Our original policy recommendation was that jurisdictions only suspend for highway safety violation reasons, and not suspend for non-driving reasons. That remains our position, but we found upon hearing these conversations throughout the country, that it didn’t go far enough.”
The group’s revised recommendation separates offenses into two categories: failure to pay (FTP) and failure to appear (FTA), urging that license suspension be used only for FTA violations when the underlying offense was related to highway safety. Similarly, jurisdictions should use existing tests for indigency in FTP cases before suspending driving privileges. “If a person comes into court and they can demonstrate that they meet the court’s definition of indigency,” Ursino says, “then the DMV, in that circumstance, should not suspend for failure to pay regardless of what the reason for the suspension was.”
“Another way to say it is drivers who cannot fully pay fines or court costs on demand may receive additional time to pay and receive a waiver of some or all the amounts,” Ursino continues. “The court may impose a payment plan or choose to entirely waive the fee or the fine based on whether or not that person meets their definition of indigency. It’s our view that jurisdictions should adopt this policy. In this way, sanctions will not disproportionately impact the economically disadvantaged forever.”
“This edition also goes into detail regarding the special considerations that should be given to our professional drivers holding CDLs,” adds Coleman.
Furthermore, says Ursino, “Our research, which sampled suspended driver data from eight states, revealed that approximately 40% of all suspension actions were for non-highway safety reasons—those are the ones we’re trying to eliminate. We can reduce the number of suspended drivers on the roads by approximately 40% without jeopardizing traffic safety, and that’s the key. Reducing the number of suspended drivers reduces workloads for the DMV administratively, and reduces workload for law enforcement officers who stop these drivers at roadside.”
The new best practices were approved by the AAMVA board in April and published in May 2021, as Reducing Suspended Drivers and Alternative Reinstatement Best Practices, Edition 3, May 2021.