Mississippi stops yanking driver's licenses for unpaid fines

A top Mississippi official said Tuesday that the state will stop suspending people's driver's licenses purely because they haven't paid court fines and fees, meaning tens of thousands of people who lost driving privileges could get them back in coming months.

Posted: Dec 19, 2017 10:45 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A top Mississippi official said Tuesday that the state will stop suspending people's driver's licenses purely because they haven't paid court fines and fees, meaning tens of thousands of people who lost driving privileges could get them back in coming months.

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.

"These changes are consistent with those new rules and a recognition across the state that a person couldn't be punished just for their poverty," said Micah West, a lawyer for the Alabama-based SPLC.

More than 100,000 people have had their Mississippi licenses automatically suspended at the request of a court clerk. MacArthur 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.

Both legal groups have also sued cities and counties in Mississippi for jailing poor people who can't afford to pay bail or fines. This time, it didn't take a lawsuit, although Johnson said "we discussed the potential for litigation challenging their license suspension policy." West said talks had been ongoing since January.

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.

"We will continue to suspend licenses for other reasons allowed under Mississippi law, and we certainly take it seriously when people drive with suspended licenses," Fisher said in a statement. "The reinstatement of these licenses will not relieve the drivers of the legal obligation to pay the fines, fees or assessments."

Mississippi becomes the fifth state to require a consideration of ability to pay before suspending a license. Others include Louisiana, which enacted the change as part of a package of criminal justice changes last year. Mississippi lawmakers had been mulling the change as well — it was originally proposed last year in a bill meant to make it easier for people to re-enter society after being convicted of criminal offenses. The driver's license provision was dropped and Gov. Phil Bryant ultimately vetoed the bill because it allowed some repeat offenders to be paroled after serving only a quarter of their sentence.

Johnson said suspended licenses were also driving people deeper into trouble because, lacking other options, they kept driving, incurring citations up to $500 for driving without a license and up to $250 for driving without auto insurance each time they're caught.

"We're making it illegal for people to drive a car in a state where we don't have any public transportation," Johnson said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 15523

Reported Deaths: 734
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds100625
Lauderdale73862
Madison72423
Scott65012
Neshoba64639
Jones62928
Forrest56438
DeSoto5427
Rankin4398
Holmes42928
Leake42712
Copiah3124
Jackson30813
Attala29817
Yazoo2814
Newton2714
Leflore26431
Lincoln26329
Harrison2587
Monroe25725
Oktibbeha23912
Lamar2385
Lowndes2119
Pearl River20931
Wayne2041
Pike20311
Adams19915
Noxubee1866
Washington1787
Warren17310
Covington1652
Jasper1634
Bolivar16211
Lee1536
Smith15211
Kemper14411
Clarke14418
Lafayette1364
Chickasaw13512
Coahoma1254
Carroll11711
Winston1171
Marion1159
Clay1124
Claiborne1112
Lawrence1021
Simpson1010
Tate941
Grenada943
Yalobusha935
Hancock9111
Wilkinson889
Itawamba877
Montgomery851
Sunflower843
Union835
Marshall833
Jefferson Davis773
Tippah7311
Panola713
Webster692
Calhoun654
Amite641
Humphreys607
Walthall560
Tunica553
Prentiss533
Perry503
Choctaw432
Jefferson421
Pontotoc353
Quitman330
Tishomingo320
Stone300
Franklin292
Tallahatchie271
George251
Alcorn171
Benton150
Greene131
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 17952

Reported Deaths: 630
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2239116
Jefferson1837102
Montgomery171040
Tuscaloosa78315
Marshall6939
Franklin5567
Lee54833
Shelby51720
Tallapoosa42765
Butler41118
Chambers35525
Walker3542
Elmore3548
Madison3394
Baldwin2909
Morgan2801
Dallas2723
Etowah25711
DeKalb2483
Lowndes24612
Coffee2361
Sumter2247
Autauga2214
Houston2204
Bullock2095
Pike2030
Colbert1842
Hale1739
Russell1710
Marengo1706
Barbour1671
Lauderdale1642
Calhoun1603
Choctaw1538
Wilcox1487
Clarke1442
Cullman1430
Randolph1277
St. Clair1231
Marion12211
Pickens1164
Dale1150
Talladega1135
Limestone1060
Chilton1011
Greene944
Winston900
Macon824
Henry802
Covington801
Jackson782
Crenshaw753
Bibb751
Washington706
Escambia633
Blount621
Lawrence500
Geneva430
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Monroe402
Perry390
Cherokee373
Clay272
Lamar260
Fayette160
Cleburne151
Unassigned00
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