Transportation panel inches closer to driver’s license suspensions fix

Jeff Brandes

The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony from staff of two state agencies and a circuit court judge on Thursday morning as it continued to seek answers about a Florida driver licensing regime previous witnesses have called “cruel.”

Panel Chairman Jeff Brandes wrote a handful of key administrators last month saying, “It is the intent of the committee to produce a substantive bill to reform the inequities in the practice of driver license suspension.”

Toward that end Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, called on Byron Brown, chief legislative analyst with the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability or OPPAGA is it is known in Capitol-speak.

Brown’s testimony shed light on a central aspect of Brandes’ drive for reform of the state’s policy on license suspensions: When people’s driving privileges are suspended it’s mostly for reasons unrelated to public safety.

An agency data review requested by Brandes showed that of the 1.3 million suspensions or revocations meted out to drivers in FY 2012-2013, about a million – a little less than 80 percent – were for failure to pay a traffic fine or complete a court-ordered driving course.

Just 86,196 licenses, or less than 7 percent, were suspended for public safety reasons such as driving under the influence or causing harm to people or property.

About 167,267 licenses were suspended for reasons completely divorced from driving at all, the focus of the OPPAGA report.

Among those, the most common reasons were overdue state fines, failure to pay child support, felony drug offenses – which come with a mandatory revocation upon conviction, school truancy, worthless check charges and theft offenses.

The most common length of these suspensions in Florida was one year, double the federal requirement of six months.

Such suspensions are a major source of income for the judiciary, a fact not lost on Trilby Sen. Wilton Simpson, who inquired about the issue to Judge Augustus Aikens Jr. of the state’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Court, who also testified before the committee.

“Do you have any ideas, if we were to reduce the suspensions … What would we do then to collect all the money and fees in that area?” Simpson said.

Aikens responded that it was a question more for court clerks rather than for a judge, but that he did have experience on the bench in collections court.

“The problem is we were just incarcerating people that just didn’t have the ability to pay,” said the judge, who was scheduled to preside over arraignment proceedings later in the day. “Many of them will admit that they knew their license was suspended, they were just trying to get to work. They couldn’t pay the cost and fines,” adding that for many charges, there is no business purposes-only license, an option Brandes seemed apt to expand.

Ryan Ray

Ryan Ray covers politics and public policy in North Florida and across the state. He has also worked as a legislative researcher and political campaign staffer. He can be reached at [email protected].


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