Advocates in Alabama Fight License Suspensions — And Win
Until recently, Alabama residents who missed a single court date or failed to pay state-issued fines and fees had their driver’s licenses suspended. But new legislation keeps drivers behind the wheel while giving them more time to settle their fees without a suspension.
Bill SB-154 passed with bipartisan support in the Alabama Legislature and was signed by Gov. Kay Ivey in June 2023. The law, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2023, allows residents to miss one court appearance or two payments on fines and fees before their licenses can be suspended.
Alabama Appleseed, a grantee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, played a major role in educating lawmakers about the effects of swiftly suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fees.
Callie Greer, a community navigator with Alabama Appleseed, believes the organization’s success on this issue was only possible through a people-centered campaign.
“The work we do is rooted in community service. I can go into neighborhoods and have people trust me because I live there, too. We can talk about what’s going on in their lives and have a genuine conversation. Too often, we forget there are real people at the heart of community issues.”
“This is a major victory for the people of Alabama,” says Francesca Jean Baptiste, a senior associate with the Foundation. “A suspended driver’s license can be disastrous for working parents, many of whom rely on access to a car to support their families.”
Consequences of a Suspended License
According to a 2018 report from Alabama Appleseed, Alabamans with suspended driver’s licenses faced significant challenges in their daily lives, including:
- Choosing between paying fines and meeting daily needs. A survey of residents whose licenses were suspended found that 89% could not pay court fines and fees while also paying for needed utilities, food or medicine.
- Borrowing to stay afloat. Nearly half of survey respondents indicated that those with suspended licenses had to take out high-interest loans to pay their fines and fees.
- Incarceration. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed experienced time in jail because of their unpaid tickets.
In 2018, more than 22,000 Alabama residents had their licenses suspended because they were unable to pay court-related fines and fees, the report found, with the median value of court-related debt falling just under $900.
“The practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees or failure to appear harms 10s of 1,000s of people every year in Alabama, but public awareness of this harm is still relatively new,” says Leah Nelson, research director of Alabama Appleseed. “A big part of our mission was showing elected officials on both sides of the aisle how the average person with a suspended license might go deeper into debt, lose their job or face jail time.”
Advancing Legislation To Help Drivers and Their Families
Although the recent legislation will create breathing room for people who have traffic tickets, Alabama Appleseed believes the work to repair the harm done by excessive fines and fees across the state is far from over.
Nelson says further reforms, like lowering the amount of court debt that can be imposed on low-income households, would reduce the likelihood of excessively harsh consequences.
“Imposing financial penalties that far exceed what someone can reasonably pay simply makes no sense,” says Nelson. “Aside from causing financial insecurity and eroding family and community stability, we believe trying to collect money that just doesn’t exist is a waste of judicial resources. By fixing this system in a meaningful way, lawmakers can be much more responsive to the everyday realities of drivers and their families.”