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Millions of Floridians have a suspended license and lawmakers say it's keeping them in poverty

Most are due to failure to pay court fines
Posted at 5:40 AM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 08:02:08-05

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Millions of Floridians currently have a suspended license and it’s not because of a traffic violation, but instead, a failure to pay fines and court fees.

Hillsborough County commissioners have just taken a big step in supporting legislation the would allow these drivers to regain their license and drive legally on the road.

Advocates with the Fines and Fees Justice Center say this is a problem that impacts not only families, but entire communities.

Nearly two million Floridians cannot legally drive due to a suspended license, according to the Fines and Fees Center, a non-profit agency that just presented their findings to Hillsborough County leaders.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center now says Florida punishes people by suspending their driver’s license when they cannot afford to pay the steep fines and fees that Florida law mandates for traffic tickets, toll violations, and criminal convictions.

That was the situation for Alinder D. Londono III, a Miami resident, who ended up with few options to get to work after he failed to pay a traffic ticket and it went into collections.

Londono said that leaves people with a suspended license in a perilous financial position.

"Every time you're getting behind that steering wheel, every time you're taking that 30-minute drive, it feels like a two-hour drive,” he said.

In 2019 in Hillsborough County, nearly 85,000 people had their driver's licenses suspended, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. But 75 percent of those suspensions were just because they did not pay court fines and fees.

Similarly, in Pinellas County in 2019, more than 40,000 people had their driver's license suspended. However, 70 percent of those suspensions were because of non-payment.

Commissioner Kimberly Overman brought this issue before Hillsborough County and said it’s critical to support legislation to help these drivers.

“We want people to be successful at rehabilitation or doing the right thing,” Overman said. “The last thing we want to do is keep them from being able to support themselves or their families.”

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said this is a problem that he and Julianne M. Holt. who is with the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office, deals with regularly. He mentioned how taking away a driver's license from a person who fails to pay court fines and fees helps continue the cycle of poverty for many.

"These laws are ineffective," Warren told Hillsborough County Commissioners. "They don't make people pay. They merely clog our criminal justice system and make it harder for people to get out from under the thumb of criminal justice."

Florida House Bill 557 would allow the courts to waive some of these fines and fees or convert them into community service. This bill is currently making its way through the state's legislature.

Hillsborough County Commissioners voted unanimously to support H.B. 557 on Feb. 17.