ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh on Wednesday called for repealing the state’s authority to suspend the driver’s licenses of motorists who fail to pay a traffic fine or fee because they lack the funds, saying such a suspension criminalizes poverty and forces low-income drivers to choose between missing work or tempting arrest by driving on a suspended license.
Suspending driver’s licenses because the motorist was unable to pay has “unintended but terrible consequences,” Frosh said. “They (the suspended motorists) get sucked into a vortex of punishment and poverty.”
Frosh’s comments came in support of legislation that would remove the state Motor Vehicle Administration’s authority to suspend a driver’s license when the motorist was unable to pay a fee or fine for a civil traffic offense. A similar measure died in the General Assembly last year when the bill lacked the full-throated support of Frosh or then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
First-year Senate President William “Bill” Ferguson also voiced support for the bill, saying the state should “stop punishing poverty” by suspending the drivers’ licenses of motorists who cannot pay the fine or fee.
“We have to rethink our policies that are punishing and penalizing poverty,” said Ferguson, D-Baltimore.
Del. Brooke Lierman, the bill’s chief sponsor, said suspending licenses for failure to pay a fee or fine shows that “government has been too exuberant in creating barriers” to the efforts of low-income residents to succeed.
“We have criminalized the act of being unable to pay a fine or fee,” said Lierman, D-Baltimore.
Republican Sen. Chris West, also a sponsor of the bill, hailed what he called bipartisan legislation that would allow low-income motorists to keep their licenses but not let them get off “scot free” for their traffic violations or unpaid fees. They will still have a civil judgment against them and a continuing obligation to pay while being permitted to drive, said West, of Baltimore County.
The bill will come before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where it will have the support of the panel’s chairman.
Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, called the measure “an economic empowerment bill” that will enable people unable to pay a traffic fine or fee to remain licensed to drive and thus able to get to work.