ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh urged legislators Wednesday to strip the state of its authority to suspend the driver’s licenses of motorists who fail to pay a traffic fine because they lack the funds, saying such suspensions criminalize poverty and force low-income drivers to choose between missing work or risking arrest by driving on a suspended license.
“We have a very significant tool as a debt collector as the state,” Frosh told the House Judiciary Committee. “If you don’t pay your (traffic) debt, we will take away your driver’s license. It is momentously punitive. It is a hammer that lands the hardest on the poor.”
By contrast, Frosh said, referring to the debt, “if you are educated or connected or you have money, you can fix it.”
The attorney general spoke in favor of legislation that would repeal the Motor Vehicle Administration’s authority to suspend licenses for failure to pay, while permitting the state agency to seek a civil judgment against a motorist for unpaid fines. The MVA could then seek a court order and associated remedies – such as garnishment of wages – to enforce the judgment against the driver.
Frosh acknowledged that many low-income motorists might never be able to pay the judgment, a result the attorney general said he was willing to accept.
“It’s a value judgment,” Frosh told the committee, saying it is more important that low-income people be able to drive themselves to work, their children to school and their families to medical appointments than to punish them for their poverty.
“License suspensions drive people deeper into poverty and keep them there,” Frosh said.
House Bill 280 would apply retroactively, lifting the suspensions of drivers who have had their licenses suspended for failing to pay a fine they could not afford.
The measure was introduced at the request of the attorney general, whose office represents the MVA and other state agencies in court.
Stripping the MVA of its suspension authority will “decrease injustice,” Frosh told the House Judiciary Committee.
“There is no other creditor anywhere that I know of that has this powerful tool,” Frosh said. “If you don’t pay, you lose your license.”
The Department of Legislative Services has estimated that implementation of the bill would cost the state close to $7 million, as the MVA would begin pursuing civil judgments for unpaid fines in the absence of its suspension authority.
Of that estimated cost, nearly $4.7 million would go to 56 staff positions, including 27 attorneys, 15 administrative aides, 10 customer agents and four fiscal accounting technicians, DLS stated. The one-time contractual cost of processing immediate license reinstatements would be $1.6 million, DLS added.
House Bill 280 has been crossfiled in the Senate, where Senate Bill 234 is pending before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate panel, has praised the legislation as “an economic empowerment bill” that would enable people unable to pay a traffic fine to remain licensed to drive and thus able to get to work.