The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, New York 12224
Governor Andrew Cuomo:
New Yorkers United for Justice strongly supports the passage of S. 5348B/ A. 7463B and urge you to sign this important piece of legislation into law. Current New York law allows the court to suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay or failure to appear in traffic court. If an individual drives with a suspended license, formally referred to as “aggravated unlicensed operation,” they can face up to a month of incarceration.
The practice of license suspension for failure to pay a traffic ticket fee or appear in court for a minor traffic related offense not only creates a two-tiered justice system similar to that created by money bail, but also produces a pipeline to incarceration and criminal conviction. This is especially true for communities of color, where data show that Black and Latinx people are stopped, ticketed, charged, and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.
Between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt. The rate of driver’s license suspensions in New York City is 2.5 times higher in communities of color than in neighborhoods where the majority of the population is white. Outside of the five boroughs, the rate jumps to 4 times higher. In New York’s ten poorest zip codes the rate of suspension is nearly 9 times higher than in its ten wealthiest zip codes.
Driver’s license suspension places individuals in a difficult position wherein they must choose between missing work, losing access to health care, childcare, food, and other necessities, or driving on a suspended license. Because so many New Yorkers rely on driving to provide for themselves and their families, they often risk getting involved with the criminal justice system regardless. Data show that 75 percent of drivers with suspended licenses in New York continue to drive. This creates an avoidable and unnecessary pipeline into the criminal justice system, which should be prioritizing individuals who pose a true public safety threat.
This bill better aligns New York with similar states, such as California, New Jersey, Georgia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and others, that have moved away from mandatory license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Like these other states, New York law maintains its ability to suspend licenses of individuals who pose a public safety threat.
This legislation retroactively eliminates suspensions for those who have been unable to pay traffic debt previously—an important change that will save millions of New Yorkers from the often-endless cycle of poverty and criminalization. Further, it creates a payment plan for New Yorkers to better manage their traffic debt as an alternative to license suspensions, a commonsense approach. As New York works to recover from the devastating impact of COVID-19, and with more than 2 million New Yorkers out of work, a driver’s license is critical lifeline that will allow residences to return to the workforce and get the economy moving again.
We applaud the legislature for moving this important bill at this critical time. At a time of heightened economic insecurity, it is vital that we are not making it harder for people to earn a living. We urge you to sign this bill into law and continue to make New York a safer and more prosperous place for everyone.
Executive Director, New Yorkers United for Justice