Last month, we wrote that driver’s license suspensions unfairly penalize the poor. Without the money to get it back, a suspended license creates tremendous barriers for those trying to earn a living. Kelvin Anderson, a Retention Assistant at Growing Home, Inc, shared his story with us first-hand last month:
“My driver’s license has been suspended since 2006 for a variety of traffic violations: no insurance or registration, expired plates, and driving on an expired license. I never received clear information about what I needed to do to lift the suspension from my license, which has cost me thousands of dollars and multiple job opportunities over the past six years. April, 2015, is when I will finally have enough money to pay off these fines and hopefully I will be able to receive my license.”
Kelvin was pulled over in 2006. His driver’s license was expired, and he received a ticket. He was summoned to court for it, but during a period of unstable housing, he did not receive the letter. The court suspended his expired license for a “Failure to appear.” Kelvin had no idea.
In 2010 alone, more than 30,000 drivers like Kelvin were suspended in Illinois for a failure to pay a ticket, auto insurance, court fees, or child support.((American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Suspended/Revoked Working Group. (2013). Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Licenses. Available at: http://www.aamva.org/Suspended-and-Revoked-Drivers-Working-Group/.)) These non-driving suspensions devastate the working poor and unemployed. Those who can pay simply avoid the suspension. But for the crime of having too little to pay, the poorest in Illinois have to pay more.
The Surprise Incarcerations
In 2009, Kelvin heard about a job opportunity through a friend. He was going to work for a private delivery service at O’Hare—a job that would require a driver’s license. On his way to secure the job, Kelvin was pulled over at a toll-road checkpoint, and arrested for driving on a license that he didn’t know was suspended. He was notified of his new court date and appeared right on time.
“I’d gotten a letter about a court date regarding my license, so I thought when I went to the court date that I would be complying with the courts to get my license back. I had no legal representation or any paperwork to explain why I hadn’t paid or attended previous court dates. I told the judge I was moving from house to house, and I was unaware of what I even had tickets for, and that I hadn’t seen the letters informing me of prior court dates. I was taken into custody on the spot and served 31 days in jail.”
Needless to say, Kelvin didn’t get the job at O’Hare.
“After I was released, I didn’t drive again until 2013,” Kelvin says. However, after four years without driving, he made his first exception to help out a friend. “I was driving [her] home because she was sick, but her license plates were expired.” He was pulled over and taken to jail for driving on a suspended license with expired plates and no insurance.
Once again, Kelvin is hardly alone. Seventy-five percent of suspended drivers continue driving, often without even realizing they are suspended.((Carnegie, J. A., & Eger III, R. J. (2009). Reasons for Drivers License Suspension, Recidivism and Crash Involvement among Suspended/Revoked Drivers (No. HS-811 092). Available at: http://trid.trb.org/view.aspx?id=897746.)) Often, just driving on a suspended license (regardless of why it was initially suspended) can escalate to a felony conviction. In Cook County, in 2005-2009, more than 8,000 class 4-felonies were handed out to people simply for driving on a suspended or revoked license, regardless of the initial reason for the suspension.((Original (unpublished) analysis by Daniel Rossi and Melody Waring on publicly available data available at: http://convictions.smartchicagoapps.org/#felonies.))
The Lifted Suspension—or Not
Kelvin enrolled in Growing Home’s employment and training program in July 2014. With a family and new job prospects, he wanted to set up payment plans and get his license reinstated.
“When I went to pay my tickets at the Secretary of State, I was told they have no record of how much I owed. [Through my own research, I found] I owed somewhere between $2,900 and $3,500. I tried to set up a hardship payment plan with the City of Chicago but I couldn’t because the tickets were past the point of being paid. I had to go back to court and motion my tickets back up.”
Past due tickets can be sent to private collection firms, or can remain on your record marked as “Failure to appear”—the same allegation used for missed court dates when you have been charged with a crime, and can lead to a warrant for your arrest. If the tickets are sent to collections, it destroys your credit history and exponentially increases your costs; if they are not sent to collections, you have no way to make a payment without going to court. Either way, administrative fees and late fines accrue and compound, so the initial amount owed quickly multiples.
In September, Kelvin had a court date where he planned to settle all remaining tickets and lift the suspension on his license. He lives in Chicago. Licenses are issued and suspended by the Secretary of State, which has offices in Chicago. Some of his tickets were from the City of Chicago. However, Kelvin had to go to the municipality where his initial ticket was issued—some 30 miles away in Markham.
Each one of 13 tickets had to be “motioned up” separately for review, and the court charges $70 for each “motion.” In other words, you have to pay for the privilege of paying your past due tickets and their accumulated fees.
“When I attempted to motion up my tickets, I had to complete a form to waive the $70 fees before even motioning the tickets in court. One judge signed the waiver, then I was sent to another judge who had to vacate previous orders on all of the tickets and give me a final decision on what to do. The judge grouped some of the tickets concurrently and dropped the total cost to $715.”
Working part-time, Kelvin wasn’t able to pay off the tickets in full while supporting his family. Kelvin had heard about the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) from a friend, but received no details about it from the court. Advocating for himself, he “asked the judge if I could do SWAP to pay the rest of the debt. He ordered 10 days of SWAP. But I had to go to downtown Chicago to the Secretary of State to get a notice of compliance for each of my tickets.”
…And he had to do all this without driving.
The Mysteriously Unknown Balance
The Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program credits $100 per day of work to court debt (though no one explained to him why he was ordered 10 days for his $715 balance). SWAP has stringent requirements around attendance and absence. It can be challenging to meet all of its requirements while still getting food on the table and actively working or looking for full-time employment. Kelvin was dividing his time at three different organizations, in addition to SWAP, in November 2014.
“During the time I worked SWAP, I was doing community organizing work for a few organizations, most notably the Community Renewal Society and Growing Home. While doing so I found seasonal employment with Spirited Gardener, so I was only able to complete three days of SWAP. At my next court date, I told the judge about my community work I had done and why I did not successfully complete SWAP. He said he could not accept my community work as a substitute, but he would credit me the three days I did at $100 a day. I agreed and the price was dropped to $415. He then told me I had to get another letter of compliance and to see him when the fines where paid.”
After saving up, Kelvin made another trip to Markham in February 2014 to pay off his balance. But when he arrived at the courthouse, the cashier unexpectedly told him he owed $515—and could not explain why the balance had changed. Since he did not have the extra hundred dollars with him, he had to schedule another court date in Markham. This time, the judge told him he owed $336, after vacating the rest of his tickets.
The Three Bonus Tickets
Finally, in March, Kelvin had his court date to pay off his $336 balance, and made yet another trip to Markham. He was instructed to take the receipt of his paid balance to the Secretary of State as proof of payment. Then, after taking a driver’s test and paying for a new license, he could finally take back his right to drive!
“I was told to wait three days until I could take the test because I had to wait until the changes took effect in their system.” After waiting, Kelvin went to the Secretary of State, ready to drive again.
But the Secretary of State told him he still had three unpaid tickets at the Markham courthouse. For the sixth time, Kelvin had to arrange to go to back to court in Markham—without driving.
“When I went back to find out why I was paying more fines, they told me that when I motioned my tickets back into court I ‘hadn’t put all of the ticket numbers on the slip.’ So now I owed for three more tickets I was not aware of. As of April 1, 2015, the court tells me I owe $410, and then I will be eligible to get my license reinstated.
“I have not gone to make any payments as I am still saving to pay the full amount of tickets for my license.”
A Pattern of Injustice
Lack of clarity; multiple, fragmented government agencies; conflicting messages; expensive and opaque fees.…These are the norm, not the exception, for thousands of Illinoisans whose licenses are suspended because they simply can’t pay. Trying to understand what it takes to persevere through so many setbacks, we asked Kelvin if he would share his thoughts on the process. His summary is poignantly understated:
“I had to make five or six trips between the Markham courthouse, clerk’s office, and Secretary of State in Chicago. I had to bring my tickets back into court. Every time I did that it cost $70 plus traveling fees, tickets, fines and missed days at work.
“I question why, after eight months, I still haven’t received my license, even though I have complied with what the courts order. Why I keep getting the run-around about what steps to take to lift the suspension from my license.
“I do not understand why I was still ordered to pay fines after serving time in jail.”
Update: Because of miscommunications between the Secretary of State and the courts, Kelvin had been told he still owed more money, even after he had paid for all the tickets he thought he had.
“Once I did everything, they pulled up more tickets that they didn’t even know was in the system. So I brought that back into court, and I said, “I’ve been fighting for my license for nine months. I’ve been doing this for a while. I don’t understand why is there more tickets being thrown on top of me after I’ve done everything you asked me to do? I’ve complied with the court, I even complied with the Secretary of State, and now they’re saying that there are still more tickets on my record.” So we went to court for that, and I pled my case, and they ended up throwing it out and giving me my license back.
“I’m really happy now that I have it. It’s been quite a struggle, and I’m pretty sure a lot of other people go through struggles like this. They also said that it was a mistake of theirs, that it was not my mistake that they didn’t pull all those tickets up, and that they didn’t handle the situation appropriately.
“I know for a fact that there can be a lot of barriers to employment—to just doing things in life—because of not having your driver’s license. I’m just glad to have mine back.”
Kelvin’s advice for others stuck in the same trap? Keep detailed records of everything from the courts and everything from the Secretary of State!