PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — More than 100,000 people in Pinellas County, and two million people across Florida, have suspended driver’s licenses according to state data. Religious community leaders in Pinellas County are on a mission to reduce the number of people arrested for driving on a suspended license.
On Thursday, members of FAST (Faith and Action for Strength Together) gathered to beg the Pinellas County Sheriff for change.
Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church says it’s easier than most people think to end up with a suspended license. “When many of us hear someone’s license has been suspended or revoked we assume and often think to ourselves those folks must have done something dangerous like being convicted of a DUI or reckless driving, but that’s often not the case,” he explained.
According to the Fines & Fees Justice Center, of those who have suspended licenses in Pinellas County, 75% are because of unpaid fines and fees.
“These kinds of punishments should be reserved for people who are actually putting the public in danger,” added Reverand Tom Anastasia of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Reverend Robert Teagle found himself in a similar situation. “I was pulled over by a police officer and I asked them why because I knew I wasn’t speeding and the officer told me I was driving on a suspended license which I was unaware of,” he explained.
Teagle says he had switched insurance companies and his former company notified the state that he had dropped his policy. Luckily, the officer called the new insurance company to check if he had an active policy, which he did.
“If he wouldn’t have checked, and I got arrested it would have been really devastating because #1 I’m arrested for something I was unaware of and #2 because I’ve never been arrested before,” Teagle elaborated.
Religious leaders insist too many people are getting arrested for suspended licenses, despite not committing any dangerous traffic infractions. They would like Pinellas County to add a diversion program for those cases, which would keep the person out of jail and keep it off a person’s record.
ABC Action News reached out to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and he tells us he’s met with FAST members and that “what they are asking for is complicated, and we have not been able to reach an agreement on how to implement what they are asking for,” he added in a statement.
Members of FAST plan to have a meeting on September 21 at 2 p.m. They’ve invited several law enforcement leaders and hope together they can come up with some solutions.
“Once you’re arrested, there’s a cascade of problems. You often must go to court, which means time off work. It’s hard to find a job when you have an arrest record, and you could even be prevented from other things like finding housing or volunteering at your child’s youth group. On top of that, the fees and fines just add up," said Rev. Jean Cooley of Good Samaritan Presbyterian/UUC in Pinellas Park.
"For your first-time offense, you could be fined up to $1000. That’s on top of the fees and fines you must pay to get your license re-instated, and whatever the original problem was that got your license suspended to begin with. In a time when the cost of rent, food and gas is all higher than ever—people just don’t have the money to pay these endless fees and fines.”