Advocates in Alabama Fight License Suspensions — And Win

Posted October 24, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Governor of Alabama signs SB 154 into law

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 and a mem­ber of the South­ern Part­ner­ship to Reduce Debt, 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.”

Learn more about how court and motor vehi­cle debt harms households

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