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‘Vicious cycle’ of license suspension for unpaid fines would stop under House bill

Jeanette Boerner, first assistant public defender for Hennepin County, testifies before the House Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee March 14 in support of HF3356. Photo by Andrew VonBank

For Leah Jackson, a Minneapolis restaurant server and dance instructor, an unpaid $135 traffic ticket turned into a suspended license, more tickets, increased insurance premiums — all adding up, eventually, to a whopping $13,000 in costs.

And all because she couldn’t pay that original ticket, having just started a new job and moved into a new residence, she told the House Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee on Wednesday.

The committee approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) that intends to help eliminate situations like the one faced by Jackson. HF3356 would prohibit the Department of Public Safety from suspending a person’s driver’s license on the basis of an unpaid traffic ticket, parking fine, or surcharge.

Zerwas said a suspended license for unpaid fines can cause fines to pile up and compound, on top of a loss of employment and income.

“This cycle becomes a burden,” he said, adding that it “criminalizes poverty … which I feel is uncalled for.” 

HF3356 was referred to the House Floor. There is no Senate companion.

The bill would also prohibit suspension based on other specific situations, including failure to appear in court after receiving a citation for driving after suspension or revocation; a conviction for driving after suspension or revocation; or for the illegal purchase of alcohol or tobacco.

The state already has ways to recoup unpaid fines, Zerwas said, including collection agencies or through the Department of Revenue. Suspending a driver’s license on top of those simply punishes people who may not be able to pay, he said.

“This vicious cycle we’re in needs to stop,” said Jeanette Boerner, the first assistant public defender for Hennepin County.

Zerwas also sponsors HF3357 that would allow courts to reduce or waive a $75 surcharge imposed on criminal and traffic tickets based on the offender’s ability to pay. The committee also approved that bill, re-referring it to the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. There is no Senate companion.  

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