Getting driving privileges back for millions of FL motorists

Driver's license. Credit: Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

More than 2 million Florida motorists have had their driver’s licenses suspended because, in many cases, they failed to pay fines, fees, or other court costs associated with traffic violations, such as speeding.

Now state lawmakers want to help those Floridians get their driving privileges back, arguing that it is critical for them to be able to drive in order to work, support their families, or even pay off their fines.

“Right now we have almost 2 million people in the state of Florida driving daily on suspended licenses, because they don’t have the ability to pay the fines and fees in one lump sum,” said Sen. Tom Wright, a Volusia County Republican sponsoring one of the bills (SB 1328) aimed at changing the system.

“The purpose of this bill is to find a way to allow [Florida drivers] to make payments, keep their licenses because they need to go to work. They need to pay their bills and not be looking over their shoulders wondering if they’re going to get pulled over on another violation,” Wright said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a workshop on Wright’s bill on Tuesday.

His bill would require a “uniform” payment system for fines and fees be used in all 67 counties.

It would create a way for motorists who cannot afford to pay off the fines to meet their financial obligations, either through making partial payments or through community service.

It would not affect driver’s license suspensions for more serious violations, like driving-under-the-influence violations, failing to make child support payments, or accumulating driver’s license points because of repeated traffic violations.

“The goal of this legislation is to keep people working so that they can pay their debts that they owe the court,” said Ashley Thomas, state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy group that supports Wright’s legislation. “This bill is about accountability and compliance.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers group, which represents the 67 court clerks across the state, has raised some objections to the bill.

“We absolutely agree with the overall policy goal of keeping people driving legally so that they can work and provide for their families,” said Tom Bexley, clerk for Flagler County, speaking on behalf of the group.

But Bexley said the clerks want to retain their ability to suspend licenses because they believe it helps with compliance.

“I think it’s important to note that individuals are only suspended if they’re not making an effort to pay. If you don’t pay your light bill, your electricity gets turned off,” he said.

Bexley said all the court clerks now work with motorists to help them pay their fines, stressing it is important for motorists to reach out to the clerks once they receive their traffic-related sentences.

Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican, said his committee could take up the legislation again next week, giving time for Wright and the court clerks to work out their differences on the bill.

A similar measure (HB 903) is pending in the Florida House.