Santa Feans say it's time to rethink license suspensions for late fines

·6 min read

Jul. 24—Former Santa Fe resident Mona Serna recalled the $80 speeding ticket she received in the city in 1995. It went unpaid.

She didn't realize the repercussions she would face until another officer pulled her over and gave her a warning: Her license had been suspended due to the unpaid fine.

Serna eventually stood before a judge and agreed to make payments on the fine and additional penalty fees, which increased the debt to triple digits. It would take her seven months to pay it off. She didn't have steady work at the time and was caring for an elderly father and children, and living on just $388 a month in cash assistance, she said.

In the meantime, her license remained suspended.

"I have been a person who has been very proud of my driver's license since I was 16 years old," Serna said. "Having that be suspended was very discouraging to me, someone who tries to have a clean record and tries to stay out of trouble. It took me a while to get over that."

Serna is now an advisory board member for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national nonprofit that advocates for more equitable government-issued fines. Her struggle nearly three decades ago grips at the heart of what some advocates and government officials have described as backward policy — laws that suspend or revoke driver's licenses for outstanding debt, often stemming from low-level traffic offenses such as speeding or parking at an expired meter.

The practice came to an end in Santa Fe recently when the City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting the Municipal Court from notifying the state Motor Vehicle Division if a person fails to pay a fine for a traffic violation. So far, Santa Fe is the only city in the state to do so.

The ordinance change was sponsored by City Councilors Carol Romero-Wirth, Jamie Cassutt and Renee Villarreal. Romero-Wirth said the measure is in line with a national movement.

Debt-based driver's license suspensions have so far been barred in Washington, D.C., and 22 states — including Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Still, according to the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 11 million people in the nation had their licenses suspended in 2020 for unpaid fines and fees.

Across New Mexico, MVD data shows, 216,000 driver's license suspension notices were issued to the agency between 2018 and 2020, most of which were due to a combination of failure to appear in court and failure to pay fines.

Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, Romero-Wirth's husband, backed an unsuccessful measure in the 2021 legislative session to bar the practice statewide.

It could get another shot in 2023 — and it likely would have wide support from state residents. A study by the Fines and Fees Justice Center shows about 65 percent of New Mexicans back the idea. Santa Fe residents favor the measure at an even higher rate — 83 percent — according to the study.

Proponents of the change say debt-based suspensions can create a cycle of poverty by taking away a person's legal ability to drive to their jobs, outright jeopardizing a person's employment or leading to jail time.

"So many community members have dealt with this," said Monica Ault, a former public defender who is the state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. "What it does is it pushes an impossible choice: You drive on a suspended license — which is a criminal offense, and you risk another criminal fine and fee, not to mention conviction — or you don't drive and lose access to work, child care and basic necessities."

"I think people do live right on the edge," Romero-Wirth said. "It is so easy for one crisis to put them over in a way that is really hard to recover. Whether it is a broken water heater or a broken windshield — OK, yeah, you are going to have to deal with that, but you want to give them the ability to deal with it. You don't want to put people in a place where they can't recover and they can't figure themselves out of that bad event."

The city ordinance does not remove the responsibility for people to pay fines — a court summons can be issued if someone misses a payment, followed with a bench warrant for arrest if the person misses the court date.

Serna said even if she had known her license had been suspended before her second traffic stop, she likely would have continued to drive.

"I had to drive on a suspended license," she said. "It was scary."

She and Ault hope to see the New Mexico Legislature follow in Santa Fe's footsteps by passing legislation barring debt-based license suspensions.

Senate Bill 7, the 2021 measure sponsored by Wirth and Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, passed the Senate 34-6 but didn't make it to the House floor before the session ended.

Ault believes it has a chance next year.

"I think that people are starting to really recognize that it is a counterproductive sanction," she said. "If someone is having a hard time paying a traffic infraction, if you cut off their ability to drive, they can't get to work and they can't get that money and will never pay that underlying infraction. I think that really resonated with lawmakers and the community."

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, didn't comment on whether the governor would support such a measure. She wrote in an email she wouldn't speculate on any prospective legislation.

Wirth was unavailable for comment.

Chris Nordstrum, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, wrote in an email there is no effort to revive SB 7, but that could change before the legislative session starts in January.

He added, "using someone's economic status as part of punishment often results in disparate and unfair results."

"Debt-based suspensions can harm individuals, their families and the health of our economy by making it impossible for some people to work or take care of their families, and can lead to spiraling debt issues that become more and more difficult to overcome," Nordstrum wrote.

If the city can demonstrate the move makes sense at the local level, Romero-Wirth said, perhaps state lawmakers will support the change.

Mayor Alan Webber said he hopes the city can be a litmus test for state lawmakers. He expects the change to have a positive effect on city residents.

"This fine system is actually a deterrent to people making a living and being honest about their driving record," Webber said. "The punishment does not fit the crime. It is worse than the crime."

Staff writer Robert Nott contributed to this report.