Taking away a driver’s license for failing to pay traffic tickets or other court debt can turn a small problem into a much more serious situation for many Minnesotans.
Losing the freedom to drive may lead to job loss, or have other unintended consequences, that bring even more debt and a host of other issues that can impact entire families and make the initial fine the least of anyone’s problems.
The House Transportation Committee on Thursday approved a proposal that would end driver’s license suspensions as the penalty for a number of different violations, while allowing people who have lost licenses for those offenses to get them back.
Approved, as amended, 17-0, the bill’s next stop is the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. The companion, SF432, is sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) and awaits action by the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
Becker-Finn said there are about 20,000 Minnesotans who have their licenses suspended for things like failure to pay fines or appear in court, and the current system disproportionately impacts those with the lowest incomes.
“What this bill does is some of those petty misdemeanor type of things would no longer be reasons people would have their driver’s licenses suspended,” she said. “The idea is to allow people to continue to drive legally so they can continue to support their families, so they can continue to get to work safely without violating the law.”
Becker-Finn said the bill has bipartisan support with advocates that include the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota State Bar Association and the state’s public defenders.
Mary Ellen Heng, a Minneapolis deputy city attorney who has prosecuted misdemeanor offenses for more than 20 years, said her office prosecutes about 15,000 misdemeanor cases per year and, over the last few years, 400 to 1,000 of those cases annually are for driving with a suspended license.
“This is simply not how I want my staff to be spending their time,” Heng said. “We want to focus on issues that impact public safety,” adding that license suspensions can lead to lost jobs, loss of housing and other outcomes that can become serious legal issues.
A fiscal note on the bill estimates the loss of revenue to the state would be $532,000 each year beginning in fiscal year 2022. Because of the financial impact, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) said the plan for the bill is to eventually have it end up in the House Ways and Means Committee until the budget targets are determined “later on in March.”