‘Criminalization of poverty’: Md. weighs ban on suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fees

brian frosh
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Sen. Will Smith speak in support of ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

A Maryland law that allows for the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines or fees is on the chopping block.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined state lawmakers in Annapolis to call for an end to the practice of suspending people’s driver’s licenses because they failed to pay a court fee or fine.

State Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat who represents Baltimore City, said the practice leads to what she calls the “criminalization of poverty.”

Frosh said it is possible that tens of thousands of Marylanders could be affected by the bill.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Jason Butler, of Baltimore, joined Frosh, Lierman and other lawmakers and explained how a single traffic stop spiraled into a chain of events that led to spending a month in jail and winding up with a record — something that has hurt him when looking for work.

Butler explained that in 2008, he was pulled over for a failure to signal. Butler, a father of four, was struggling to pay bills at the time, and getting the fine cleared up took a back seat to other basic expenses.

Eventually, he learned that his license had been suspended. When he went to court, he took public transportation because, he explained, he didn’t want to drive on a suspended license.

Butler was 15 minutes late to court, and let a bailiff know. Butler said the bailiff told him to “sit tight.”

“The next thing I know, they put me in shackles and told me that I was going to be detained on a bench warrant until my case was recalled,” Butler said.

Unable to pay, Butler ended up spending a month in jail.

“I wound up losing my job, lost my apartment — it was rough” Butler said. “The worst part about it is gaining potential employment going forward — that arrest is on my record.”

Butler said the irony is that in order to pay a ticket, people have to get to work; but if their license is suspended, they can’t make the money they need to meet their obligations and that can cascade into the kind of situation he experienced.

The legislation to ban the practice of license suspensions over debt has bipartisan support.

Republican Sen. Chris West said drivers who do commit traffic infractions and can’t pay “would not get off scot-free” under the legislation. West said the state could recover the fees with civil action.

The bill has the support of Sen. Will Smith, Chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Senate President Bill Ferguson.

will smith jason butler brooke lierman chris west
From left, Sen. Will Smith, Jason Butler, Del. Brooke Lierman and Sen. Chris West speak on banning the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic fees. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

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