A Miami-Dade County task force designed to help drivers whose licenses were suspended due to non DUI or reckless driving arrests or citations has developed a plan to have their driving privilege reinstated.
The recommendations from the Miami-Dade County Driver Licenses Suspension Task Force were approved by the County Commission in July, and city leaders will vote later on the suggestions they want to implement.
Commissioner Eileen Higgins was the force behind creation of the task force, which is developing solutions for people who can’t afford to have licenses restored.
She is chair of the County Commission’s Community Disparities Subcommittee, which examines barriers preventing residents from achieving economic success. In this role she discovered some people can't get work because they require reliable transportation and have suspended licenses.
Ismail Perez’s driver's license was suspended in 2015 also for unpaid parking tickets. "It's hard to try to pay them off when I don't make a lot of money and have a lot of bills at the end of the month," said Perez, 36. "I need a driver's license to drive for Uber and Lyft part time. They are hiring and offer good pay."
According to the county, about 41 percent of people whose licenses are suspended earn salaries below the federal poverty threshold, between $18,000 to $23,000 per year.
"I’ll never forget the day I learned that there are hundreds of thousands of our county residents with suspended licenses that have nothing to do with bad driving,” Higgins said. “For more than half of them, the suspension resulted from unpaid fines and fees.
"Regrettably, the data shows that license suspensions affected lower income zip codes more than affluent ones,” she added. “It seemed obvious to me that this practice makes no sense – when you take away a person’s ability to drive, you limit their access to the good jobs that could help them pay off these fees. I knew immediately this was something that needed to be fixed.”
The Driver’s License Suspension Task Force consists of judges, members of the state attorney's office and the Miami Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police. The group has recommended options for the county to implement for drivers seeking to have their licenses reinstated, including:
Reinstate an Eligible Drivers Identify Program that would notify the estimated 45,000 residents whose license suspension is older than seven years and explain the process for reapplying for their license,
- Create a driver's licenses compliance court for eligible residents.
- Develop tools that inform drivers of their options and simplify the compliance process.
- Improve communication and customer experience with the Clerk of the Courts to avoid a license suspension.
- Simplify the payment process to offer seamless, modern payment options for what they owe.
According to the task force's report, Miami-Dade County has about two million licensed drivers on the road.
About 600,000 of people have had their driver's licenses suspended.
The Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court Administrator’s Office reports that among the 600,000 people without driving privileges, 63 percent were suspended for failure to pay traffic fines and 31 percent for failing to appear in court.
Vehicle registration, toll, and insurance infractions represent more than 50 percent of all of the infractions leading to license suspension in the county. Only 2.2 percent of suspensions stem from DUI, with 0.6 percent are due to reckless driving charges.
Drivers have 30 days to pay their fines or face additional charges, which only adds to the amount that must be paid. If the person fails to pay within 90 days, Florida law allows the past-due account to be referred to an attorney or collection agency, which can add up to 40 percent of the amount owed.
About 455,000 driver's licenses have been suspended since 2002, and 224,000 had their driving privileges taken away since 2017.
Higgins said each member of the task signed off on the plan, suggesting it's the best option for drivers to get back on the road again legally.
"I just want to make sure that my colleagues know that every single task force member and every single meeting, they carefully approved it before it came before this board to let the recommendations go forward," Higgins said. "Try to get people to pay the fines and get back insurance and do it carefully."
Derreck Major, whose driver's license was suspended for three years for unpaid parking tickets, was unaware of the task force’s action.
While waiting for a bus at the Downtown Miami bus terminal, the 34-year-old said he's been trying to pay the tickets, but his budget can only pay for household expenses. "I'll find out more about the program because I need help to get my licenses back," said Major.
County Commissioner Joe Martinez, a former police officer, said he hopes the county can implement the task force's recommendations. But, he added, nobody should lose sight of the fact that drivers are still at fault for getting tickets and citations for traffic safety violations.
"Driving is a privilege, not a right," he said. "When you are on the road you must obey the traffic laws. If you blow a stop sign, and I've seen people die as a result, and the police write you a ticket, and you are back on the road. Unintended consequences on the road is the reason you don't pay a fine. Obey the traffic laws for our safety."