Unpaid tickets can be a 'debt trap'
ST. PAUL — For Carmen Mask, 2009 was a rough year.
Mask and her husband divorced, her household income dropped from about $80,000 to $25,000 a year and she and her three sons moved from their St. Paul house to an apartment.
While moving in an old van her ex had left her, a police officer pulled her over and gave her a traffic ticket for driving with a broken tail light. He also told her that her insurance had expired.
"I was really struggling at that time, and I forgot about the ticket," said Mask, 45, an employment counselor who now lives in Minnetonka and works in St. Paul. Soon after, another cop ticketed her for driving an uninsured vehicle. She couldn't afford to pay the fine or the insurance, she said, and her driver's license was suspended. Then a few weeks later, another officer stopped her and handed her a warrant for her arrest.
"It was a mess," Mask said. "I owed about $800 (in fines), and there was no way I could come up with that kind of money."
Every year, thousands of Minnesotans are caught in the same bind. They can't afford to pay their traffic tickets and end up losing their driver's license.
"They fall into a debt trap," said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.
Low-income drivers rack up mounting fines, their licenses are suspended but they continue driving in order to keep their jobs, Zerwas said. Their only other option is to quit work or get fired because they can't drive.
State officials say they don't know how many Minnesotans lose their licenses for not paying traffic tickets, but the Department of Public Safety reported that it revoked or suspended the licenses of 35,425 drivers as of Dec. 31.
Mask said she couldn't afford to stop working, so she kept driving to work, even after she lost her driver's license.
"I could have lost my job," she said. "I could have been a felon and gone to prison over some ticket ... for being broke."
But the officer who delivered the warrant told her about St. Paul's pilot "driver-diversion program" that allows people who can't afford to pay their tickets to take a "responsible driving" class, get their driver's licenses and auto insurance reinstated and set up a schedule for paying off their fines.
Mask jumped at the chance. Within 18 months, she completed the program, paid a portion of her fines, had her remaining legal debts forgiven and was driving an insured vehicle legally again.
Except for some parking tickets, she said, "I've had a clean record since then."
"My life would have been totally ruined if I wouldn't have gotten that help."
Now, Zerwas and a bipartisan group of other state lawmakers want to help more Minnesotans struggling with unpaid tickets to get provisional licenses so they can drive to work. Zerwas is chief sponsor of a bill to make the driver-diversion program statewide and permanent.
Poor people are disproportionately affected by driver's license suspensions, he said. "We're criminalizing poverty."
An effort to expand program
States across the nation are grappling with the issue. California, Florida, Kansas and Virginia are considering proposals to avoid taking away people's licenses largely because they are poor, according to the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle.
A Minnesota House committee last week tucked Zerwas' proposal into a larger public safety appropriations bill.
In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is carrying a companion bill. He has not scheduled a hearing on it, but he said, "I'm anxious to include it in another bill" if he can find money in a tight judicial system budget to fund the program, which would cost the state an estimated $2.5 million a year.
The pilot driver-diversion program was launched in St. Paul, West St. Paul, South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, Minneapolis and Duluth after the 2008 Legislature gave them a green light.
At that time, drivers with revoked or suspended licenses accounted for about one-third of the St. Paul city attorney's criminal caseload, said Jessica McConaughey, the supervising attorney in the office's criminal division. Many people going through the system had 10 to 15 traffic tickets, lost their licenses and couldn't pay all their fines in order to get their driving privileges reinstated.
"The system wasn't working," McConaughey said.
Since St. Paul started a diversion program in 2009, she said, 2,257 drivers have completed it, and now traffic offenses make up about 20 percent of the office's caseload.
Still, said Deputy Minneapolis City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng, that's a lot of time that prosecutors are spending on cases with "no accidents, no victims, nothing egregious," instead of "domestic assaults, DWIs and other crimes that really affect public safety."
McConaughey said: "As a prosecutor, public safety is my number one concern. ... We want insured drivers with valid licenses on the road, and we want to hold them accountable."
The diversion program has helped prosecutors move toward that goal, she said.
By the end of 2016, the Public Safety Department had authorized 120 Minnesota cities and 16 counties to participate in the driver-diversion program, said Scott Adkisson, president and CEO of Diversion Solutions, the Red Wing firm that conducts the service.
About 1,300 applicants are admitted to the program every year, he said, and 82 percent of them successfully complete it.
On average, participants have received six to seven traffic citations and owe about $1,700 in fines before entering the program, he said. Their average income is $11.50 an hour.
Admission isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. Participants must pay a $350 registration fee and set up a fine-payment schedule that averages $100 a month. The registration fee is usually incorporated into their monthly payments.
At the request of prosecutors, judges often reduce fines to make them more affordable.
Participants must take a three-hour class on traffic laws and driver responsibilities, prove they have insurance and not get any more tickets to complete the program, which typically takes 18 months.
Collections have risen
Since 2009, people in the diversion program have paid about $6 million in fines that otherwise would not have been collected, said Heng, the Minneapolis prosecutor.
In addition to the fines, the state tacks a $75 surcharge onto most traffic tickets. The surcharge started as a $25 fee in 1995 and was gradually increased to $75 between 2001 and 2009 as a revenue generator to offset state budget shortfalls.
Judges are prohibited by law from reducing or waiving the surcharge. As part of his bill, Zerwas, backed by an alliance of prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil rights groups and others, want to give courts the flexibility to reduce that fee.
They contend it's a high barrier for low-income drivers trying to set up a schedule for paying fines. The advocates failed, however, to persuade the House committee to include that provision in the appropriations bill.
"But it's not dead yet," Zerwas said of the surcharge provision. And he thinks his proposal to expand the driver-diversion program stands an even better chance of passing.
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.