A Utah bill would reverse suspending driver licenses for unpaid traffic fines

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A bill is advancing in the Legislature to ban the state from suspending the driver licenses of people who fail to pay minor traffic fines or fail to appear in court on them.

Despite opposition from the state, a bill advanced Friday that would ban suspending the driver licenses of people who fail to pay minor traffic fines or show up in court.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, argued the practice now impacts 30,000 Utahns a year, especially hurting low-income people who sometimes lose their jobs by losing the ability to drive to them. He said that makes it even harder for them to pay off fines and court costs.

But the Utah Department of Public Safety argued the change would take away a key tool used to prod people to appear in court.

After debate over two days, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance HB146 to the full House for consideration.

Suspending licenses for failure to pay fines or appear in court “impacts low-income people who can’t always afford to break away from life to appear on a lower level citation,” Maloy said. “This bill will allow people to with unpaid fines to maintain their means of transportation and generate the income needed to enable them to pay their fines back.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Re. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, agreed.

He said suspending licenses for nonpayment of debt just increases “the likelihood that they’re never going to be able to pay their debt and never get their license back, which means that they’ll not be able to get to work to earn the money to pay the debt.”

Molly Davis with the Libertas Institute, which advocates for removing obstacles that limit opportunity, said California found that its court collections actually increased by 9% when it stopped suspending driver licenses for unpaid debts. She said six states have adopted the practice, including neighboring Idaho and Wyoming.

But Kim Gibb, representing the Utah Department of Public Safety, said banning suspension of licenses would remove “an incentive for an individual who gets a traffic ticket to show up in court and have that ticket adjudicated. If the tickets are not adjudicated, the driver license division doesn’t have the ability to address the driving behaviors associated with the citation itself.”

She said last year, 25,000 letters were sent to people who failed to show in court for traffic violations warning they faced a suspension, “and 85% of those people actually do end up showing up in court and resolving the ticket" — and about half of those did so before their license was actually suspended.

A fiscal note on the bill predicts its passage could cost the state $993,300 annually in lost recovery of unpaid fines, and could cost local justice courts an estimated $53,000 a year.

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