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How driver’s license suspensions in New Mexico drive people deeper into debt

In 2010, Fernando Trujillo, a skinny, kind-hearted 18-year-old with a penchant for mischief, got his driver’s license taken away. He was caught smoking pot in the parking lot of a shopping mall and charged with possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.

The charges came with $150 in fines. Trujillo had just finished high school, and without a job, he did not have the money to pay it. With his fines left unpaid, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division suspended his driver’s license.

But without a license, Trujillo could not get a job. New Mexico is a state with large swaths of rural areas, characterized by desert, mountains and mesas, where public transportation is not widely available. Even in Española, the city where he lived, the bus did not show up regularly. Without a job, he could not save up to pay the fines.

A mural in downtown Española, NM.

A mural in downtown Española, NM. A peer support worker in the city said many of her clients end up with suspended licenses for unpaid debt and then find it more difficult to pay what they owe. Photo by Minesh Bacrania

“You can’t do anything in this life without having an ID,” said Trujillo, who is now a policy fellow at Bold Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people of color and women in New Mexico. “You can’t rent a room. You can’t operate a motorized vehicle. And you can’t get a job.”

Trujillo also did not have a way to get to court without a license. After he missed a hearing, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest, which came with another $100 fee as bond. He would go on to spend years in and out of jail after getting the failure to appear. “But what choice do you have?” he said. “You drive and you take that risk. Or you don’t show up, and you take that risk also. Either way it leaves you kind of screwed.”

Thousands of lost licenses

It is common in the U.S. for drivers to lose a license for reckless driving or driving while under the influence. In New Mexico, which has one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country, licenses may also be suspended for a failure to pay a variety of court fines and fees, a failure to appear in court, and other offenses unrelated to driving. The policy has existed since a 1978 state statute; a decade after Trujillo lost his license for failing to pay his court fines, little has changed.

According to Angela Pacheco, a former Santa Fe district attorney and a current part-time judge in the municipal court there, the original idea behind the policy was to get a person’s attention, so they would pay their debt or show up in court.

But New Mexico criminal justice reform advocates, attorneys and formerly incarcerated people told the PBS NewsHour that the policy is counterproductive. Without a driver’s license, they said, it is nearly impossible for a person to keep a job, take a child to school or get to the grocery store, much less pay fines and fees or comply with court requirements. Many take the risk and drive anyway, leading to an additional charge of driving on a suspended license, which comes with the potential of more fees, fines and possible jail time. And once people get out of jail, if they don’t have a license, they may not be able to get to a job, which can increase the possibility of recidivism.

Pacheco agrees the policy is misguided. “The hardship that the suspension of licenses creates is unbelievable,” she said.

In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report that investigated the high financial costs of court fines and fees in 10 counties across Texas, Florida, and New Mexico. (Fines are monetary penalties for an infraction or crime, while fees are payments for court activities that may be added on top of that.) The bipartisan law and public policy institute’s report strongly critiqued the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees, and described a “cycle of repeated contact with the criminal justice system.”

Aerial of Espanola

A view of Española and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. New Mexico is a state with large swaths of rural areas and limited public transportation, making it difficult for those who lose a license to get around. Photo by Minesh Bacrania

“The practice makes it harder for poor people to pay their debts and harms individuals and their families,” the report read, and it recommended that lawmakers follow the approach taken by Texas, which in 2019 passed legislation repealing a surcharge on traffic tickets that had left more than one million people in the state without a license. As a result, more than 600,000 Texans were eligible to get their licenses reinstated. New Mexico does not have a similar surcharge, but unpaid fines and fees often lead to additional administrative fees.

Thirteen states have recently passed legislative reform on the debt-based license suspension issue. But 37 states, including New Mexico, plus Washington D.C., still suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees, according to The Free to Drive Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 organizations working for reform on the issue.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national nonprofit advocating to reduce fines and eliminate fees in the criminal justice system, estimates that as of September 2019, some 11 million driver’s licenses were suspended nationwide for debt-related reasons. According to the center, the issue overwhelmingly affects poor people of color.

In New Mexico, 211,743 driver’s licenses have been suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear in court since 2017, Motor Vehicle Division data shows. (The number of suspensions were down in 2020, possibly because less people are driving during the pandemic.) On average, more than 50,000 licenses were lost for those reasons each year.

A snowball effect

Back in the late 1990s, Mona Serna, a single mom from Santa Fe with three children, was living on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal assistance program that provided her $389 a month. One day, she got a speeding ticket for going about 10 mph over the limit, which came with fines and fees of more than $100 that she could not pay. As a result, her license was suspended, though she did not find that out for several months, because no one notified her. She said the license suspension did not incentivize her to pay her ticket, and instead tacked on additional fees. She continuously asked for extensions for her debts, and narrowly avoided going to jail.

Today, Serna is a peer support worker at Reroute, a diversion program for qualifying offenders in Española, where she said many of her clients end up with suspended licenses for unpaid debt and then find it more difficult to pay what they owe. Serna described how one client, a mother of three, was recently able to get her license back only because of the 2020 stimulus check. The suspension “had kept her from driving, from going grocery shopping, to medical appointments for her children, and to work,” Serna said. “It’s a big struggle.”

Monica Ault, New Mexico state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center

Monica Ault, New Mexico state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, around the Capitol complex in downtown Santa Fe. Ault spent years as a public defender in Santa Fe, where many of her clients dealt with driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Photo by Minesh Bacrania

Monica Ault, a former public defender in Santa Fe, spent years defending clients who qualified for a $10 attorney. She said some were homeless or lived out of their cars. Even with her help, Ault said, driver’s license suspensions were often catastrophic to their lives. She was most troubled by a story that repeated itself with many of her clients: they lost their licenses and kept driving, got pulled over and charged with driving on a suspended license, saw their car impounded, and then ended up abandoning the vehicle because they could not afford to get it out of the tow yard. “There are all these ways it starts to snowball,” Ault said. “It’s this perpetual cycle, a terrible cycle.”

According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, some 83 percent of people with a suspended license continue to drive multiple times a week.

Ault argues that suspended licenses create a burden on the courts too. On an ordinary day as a public defender, she said, she represented between one and 10 cases of people who had driven on suspended licenses. She described a “sea of police officers” waiting to talk to her about each case before they went before a judge. Sometimes, a single case would take hours in court, and it could stretch over multiple hearings.

“The time that the court spends, that the individual spends, and that law enforcement spends on these cases is enormous. It’s such a waste of our judicial resources and law enforcement time that they could spend investigating other types of crime,” Ault said.

In New Mexico, 216,378 people got their licenses suspended in 2018, 2019 and 2020, according to MVD data. The vast majority—around 90 percent—lost them for failure to pay a fine or fee or failure to appear in court.

Inside the courtroom

On a cold, cloudy January day in 2020, several judges in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque, the busiest court in the state, had several cases before them of people who had driven on a suspended license. Two people failed to appear for their hearing and were each issued a bench warrant for their arrest, which meant they also now owed a $100 cash bond. That fee was in addition to any fines and fees they might owe for the charge that first triggered their license suspension, if they were found or pled guilty to that charge.

In the virtual courtroom of Judge Henry A. Alaniz, which was on Zoom because of COVID-19, a man named Lee Sanchez pled guilty to the charge of driving on a suspended license. The judge told Sanchez that he would have to pay a $50 fine plus $85 in court costs, an amount set by the legislature. “Can you pay that?” Alaniz asked.

Of the more than 200,000 people who got their licenses suspended in New Mexico from 2018-2020, the vast majority–nearly 90 percent–lost their licenses for failure to appear or failure to pay a fine or fee, MVD data shows. DWI’s are not included here, because those licenses are often revoked, not suspended.

“I actually can’t,” Sanchez said, saying that “with COVID and everything” it would be difficult for him to pay. Alaniz offered him the option of doing community service or a longer timeline to pay the cost. Sanchez told the judge he could make the payment within 60 days, though his voice sounded uncertain.

Camille Baca, a public information officer for the court, told the NewsHour that judges try to be flexible and do everything they can to help people be compliant. Judge Alaniz said that, in his experience, the policy of suspending a person’s license for failure to pay fines and fees does often motivate them to pay what they owe.

But Joseph Shaw, director of operations at Fathers Building Futures, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit working with formerly incarcerated men, said that for his clients that’s simply not true. Many of them don’t pay their fines and fees because they can’t, he said, and removing a driver’s license only makes that effort harder.

“I don’t think it works as an incentive,” Shaw said. “To take away something you really need to make your life happen and then say, ‘You need to pay us what you need to pay us’? That’s just backing people into a corner.”

A path forward?

In October 2020, Monica Ault, the former public defender-turned-criminal justice reform advocate, made an impassioned plea to New Mexico legislators to reduce fines and fees in the criminal justice system. Ault, who is now the New Mexico State Director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, described to legislators how these debts had affected many of her former clients.

She said one client was asked to pay the court $746 for two misdemeanors within 30 days, which was impossible given his income working at a Denny’s restaurant. Of all the fines and fees-related issues, she told the NewsHour, driver’s license suspension and revocation is “textbook how you can drive people deeper into poverty.”

“What we’re doing in suspending driver’s licenses is setting people up for failure, and doing it to our most vulnerable New Mexicans,” Ault said.

Earlier this month, after advocacy by the New Mexico Fines and Fees Justice Center and New Mexico SAFE, a coalition of community organizations, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to eliminate the policy of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees and for failure to appear. New Mexico State Senator Peter Wirth, a Democrat and the Majority Floor Leader, is sponsoring the bill.

Wirth said he was taken aback by the fact that more than 200,000 licenses had been suspended in the last several years for those two reasons. Once he examined the issue more closely, he became convinced that these suspensions lead to a “debt spiral” for people, where “once you get in you can’t get out,” he said.

Fearing a lost license, Wirth said some may turn to a high-interest payday loan to pay their fines and fees—New Mexico has the highest number of payday lenders in the U.S., per capita—and then owe even more than before. “In a state like NM, with the poverty we have, allowing the current law is too big a hammer for the underlying cause,” he said.

The bill to reform the driver’s license policy is part of a larger paradigm shift around criminal justice, added Wirth, who has been in the state legislature for 16 years. In 2016, he sponsored successful legislation for bail reform in New Mexico, which meant low-risk defendants would not stay in jail simply because they could not afford bond.

“I think there is a realization that using someone’s economic status as a part of punishment can result in really disparate and unfair results,” he said. “Two people convicted of the same crime or facing the same fee, where one can make the payment and one can’t, that’s not fair. That’s just not fair.”

The New Mexico Senate Judiciary committee heard testimony on the bill this week; next it will go to the Finance Committee, likely next month. More than a dozen witnesses appeared on Zoom to express their support for the bill, saying it would reduce recidivism and allow courts to focus on bigger public safety issues. Zero showed up to oppose it. Among the witnesses was Fernando Trujillo, who explained to the assembled senators how a license was necessary to get a job, go out for food, or rent a room. He asked them to support the bill.

“We are criminalizing the poor,” he told the NewsHour. “This legislation would start to change that, and save a lot of people a lot of stress and pain and money.”