State stops pulling DL’s for unpaid fines

Published 8:39 pm Thursday, December 21, 2017

We all know that Mississippi has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and suspending the driver’s license of someone for failing to pay their court fines and fees makes it even more difficult for the underprivileged.

More than 100,000 people have had their Mississippi licenses automatically suspended at the request of a court clerk. But as of this week, the state will stop pulling the driver’s licenses simply because they have not paid court fines and fees.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher made the joint announcement with lawyers from the MacArthur Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, after advocates complained that it was another way the state was criminalizing poverty. It parallels a court rules change enacted in July that requires a judge to determine whether a person can afford to pay a fine before jailing anyone for nonpayment.

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MacArthur Justice Center lawyer Cliff Johnson said it’s hard to tell how many will get their licenses back, although he estimated it would be in the tens of thousands.

The state will begin reinstating licenses starting in January. Mississippi will waive its $100 reinstatement fee, sending letters to anyone who benefits. Officials say people should await written notification before driving again. People whose licenses were suspended for additional reasons, such as reckless driving or driving under the influence won’t get them back. Licenses will continue to be suspended for people who don’t respond to a citation or if a judge holds someone in contempt for failing to pay fines.

Having a driver’s license is not only a privilege, but also a necessity since mass public transportation is not readily available in most areas of our state. A traffic violation can be detrimental to many of those who can barely afford the gas to get to and from work so stripping them of their driving privileges makes it even more difficult for them to pay parking fines.

It’s been a Catch-22 for years, but no longer.