Laverit Burks’ money problems started with a speeding ticket back in 2009. When he failed to pay for the ticket, his license was suspended. Then he got more tickets, and the fees only piled up — he now owes $1,535.10 to a collection agency.
Burks’ story is a familiar one in Miami-Dade County, where 29 percent of drivers currently have suspended licenses. That’s approximately 550,000 drivers, according to the county clerk of courts — enough to fill up the Miami Dolphins’ stadium seven times.
A lot of those suspensions aren’t due to unsafe driving practices, such as driving under the influence. Instead — as in Burks’ case — most suspensions across Florida are a result of failing to pay fees, a Miami Herald analysis of data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles shows. And though the county’s coffers benefit from the flow of revenue generated by license suspensions once drivers pay, those who can’t or don’t pay end up facing a crushing cycle of consequences that may include new fees, more tickets, criminal charges and even jail.
On Friday, Burks appeared before a traffic judge at the county courthouse for driving with a suspended license in June, a criminal misdemeanor. It was the second time this year the 31-year-old custodian has been charged with the same misdemeanor. He said he feels he is targeted by police because he lives near Miami’s Liberty City, he is black and drives a car with tinted windows.
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During the license suspension, Burks relied on public transportation, his bike or the occasional taxi to get around, but as his family has grown, he started driving again, he said. He relies on his car to get to work, get his kids to school and pick up groceries in public-transit-challenged Miami.
“You need a car to get around, point blank,” Burks said.
Driver’s license suspensions — originally used to clear the roads of unsafe drivers— are so commonly used as a way to collect fees that they have become more akin to an extra tax rather than a public safety measure, said Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, who presides over traffic and criminal cases.
“We’re putting an additional tax burden on a group of individuals that can’t afford it,” Leifman said. It’s “criminalizing their behavior when all they did was commit a civil infraction and didn’t have the money to pay it.”
The failure to pay fees accounted for 77 percent of all license suspensions in Florida between 2012 and 2015, according to an analysis of DHSMV data. This included traffic tickets, court costs, and child support payments. The remaining 23 percent is made up of about 100 other sanctions that can trigger a license suspension, from too many traffic violations to failure to appear in court. Miami-Dade has the highest total number of license suspensions per capita of any county in the state, the Herald analysis shows.
But license suspensions may be falling out of favor in some cases. Other states have started to move away from suspending licenses for not paying traffic tickets. A national group of motor vehicle administrators recommended in a 2013 report that state legislatures end suspensions for non-driving-related reasons. And even the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority has abandoned the use of license suspensions to extract traffic fees.
MDX used to suspend licenses for unpaid toll violations, but last year it shifted to freezing car registrations instead, a change that has proven to be “easier and more effective” and that also reduced the number of suspended licenses, said spokesman Mario Diaz.
It works this way: If a person drives on a highway with an MDX toll without using a Sunpass — the automated toll collection transponder — the driver is sent a bill in the mail. If the registered driver doesn’t pay after a second notice, the account is sent to collections and eventually a freeze is placed on the auto tags, so that a person with outstanding toll fees must pay before renewing the registration.
“We found that by placing a registration hold, people are more willing to come in and pay their tolls,” Diaz said.
That shift is one reason the overall number of license suspensions in Miami-Dade and across the state is decreasing. Other county toll authorities have also made the decision to move away from license suspensions, as well, said a spokeswoman from DHSMV.
Despite this, the more punitive measure of suspending the driver’s license is the first course of action to compel payment of traffic tickets or other court fees in Miami-Dade.
If the fees aren’t paid after 90 days, the clerk of courts will send the case to one of four private collection agencies under contract to the county: Alliance One, Penn Credit, Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson LLP and Law Enforcement Solutions. The agencies add a 40 percent collection fee to the amount owed, as authorized by the state Legislature. In 2014, the agencies collected nearly $19 million for the county clerk and an additional $7.5 million in fees, according to an analysis provided to the Herald by the clerk’s office.
The money is a boon to the cash-strapped office, said Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s clerk of courts. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to recover,” he said.
Ruvin is up against a shrinking budget allocated by the Florida Legislature, and traffic tickets as well as court costs help support budgets. The money is placed into statewide trusts distributed among a number of different courts.
But Michael Herald, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty in California and co-author of a recent report that found 4 million people in the western state had suspended licenses due to traffic fines and fees, said supporting court budgets this way puts an unfair burden on many.
“We should not shift those costs to people who really cannot afford to pay them, Herald said. “It’s just a recipe for keeping people in permanent poverty.”
Once the fees are paid, reinstating a license in Florida also costs — from $60 for not paying court fees to as much as $500 for a third suspension for not having proof of insurance. Between July 2013 and June 2014, the DHSMV collected more than $8 million from Miami-Dade residents for license penalties that stemmed from suspensions, according to its most recent revenue report.
The American Association for Motor Vehicle Administrators, a national trade group, recommended in a 2013 report that state legislatures eliminate license suspensions not related to highway safety, saying they detract from the efforts of traffic cops to keep roads safe, clog court dockets and hurt employment opportunities for suspended drivers.
Washington state ended suspensions for the failure to respond or pay traffic citations in 2013. Since then, an average of about 500 fewer arrests have been made each month for driving with a suspended license, saving the state police about nine hours on each arrest, said David Bennett, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of Licensing.
In Florida, there have been modest attempts to reduce the number of suspensions: In 2014, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill easing some of the rules, including eliminating suspensions for a first offense of not appearing in court for a bad check charge and reducing the time of suspension for drug convictions from two years to one year. In Miami-Dade, judges may also refer defendants to a diversion program called Drive Legal, which screened 12,000 people last year and enrolled about 5,000. For a $175 enrollment fee, drivers can get their licenses back by paying off collections fees through community service or attending traffic school.
Burks hopes this will be his way out of the debt he owes. On Friday, the judge granted him preliminary approval to enter the program, although he still must fulfill other qualifications. This is his second time trying to enter the program: He had an appointment in July, but he couldn’t come up with the enrollment fee because he had to buy school supplies and clothes for his children.
“I really need this program,” he said outside the courtroom, still dressed in his work clothes from an overnight shift as a custodian at a local hospital. “I don’t want to go to jail over this.”
Court costs in criminal cases, for misdemeanors or felonies — even those that are unrelated to traffic violations — can also trigger a license suspension in Florida. Sometimes known as user fees, these remain “a huge burden, especially for low- and moderate-income folks,” said Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade’s public defender.
The costs can range from $358 for a misdemeanor and soar to more than $1,000, depending on the charge. Similar to traffic tickets, Martinez said he often sees clients caught in a cycle of racking up court costs, then having their licenses suspended due to late payments, which only leads to more fines. People who can’t afford them simply remain in debt with no license, bringing no resolution for the person — or the court’s balance sheet.
Kareem Davis, 34, of Florida City, hasn’t had a valid driver’s license in years because of outstanding court costs. He owes $6,174.70 to Alliance One, one of the collection companies, over a string of misdemeanor and felony cases that date back to 2002. With the fees now in collections, the entire amount has to be repaid before his license can be reinstated.
“It’s the worst situation in the world to be in,” Davis said. He drove despite the suspension because he said he needed to take his girlfriend, Patricia Atwater, to the doctor for regular appointments after she was hospitalized in June for lung disease.
“It’s like you’re forced to do something that you don’t want to do,” Davis said.
His decision caught up with him on a rainy afternoon in late July, when an officer stopped him and found his auto tags didn’t match the car he and Atwater had purchased with cash from a lot in Fort Lauderdale. Without a valid license, he was arrested and taken to Miami-Dade’s county jail for the misdemeanor. Released two days later, he was given a new court date in downtown Miami — about 40 miles away from his home, which is difficult to access by public transportation.
His girlfriend isn’t much better off. Atwater, too, recently found out her license had been suspended for not paying a $383 ticket she received because she didn’t renew her license on time and an old civil judgment against her from 2001. Shelling out nearly $400 for one ticket is a financial stretch, she said, and she’ll still have a suspended license until the civil judgment is settled.
“When you make a decision to pay something on your license, something else will come up that you need to pay,” she said. “Like your light bill or your rent — the things that keep you from being homeless.”
Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s clerk of courts, said the threat of a suspension and collection fees sometimes provides a needed push for people to pay up. He said his office “will work out any sort of payment plan” needed for cases of financial hardship.
But the option only works before a fee winds up in debt collection. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit against the clerk of courts in Marion County for its policy that payment plans can only stretch over six months, a small amount of time for some who owe a large sum to the courts.
Davis said he wants his license back but isn’t likely to have the money anytime soon. But Burks holds out hope that the Drive Legal program is the key to working off his court debt through community service. He has an appointment with the program later this month.
“It would be such a big weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I’m praying that this works for me.”