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Florida Seeks Solutions For Driver Licenses Suspended Over Unpaid Debts

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Nadege Green
/
WLRN
Michael Harris gets his license reinstated for the first time in five years at Operation Green Light 2019 in West Palm Beach.

Hundreds of people lined up outside the main courthouse in West Palm Beach late last year, all of them trying to get their suspended driver licenses reinstated.

“Operation Green Light” was part of a recent initiative by state legislators requiring local court clerks to create driver license reinstatement days. About two million drivers in Florida have suspended licenses — most because of unpaid fines and fees that have nothing to do with unsafe driving.

Not paying a toll or failing to pay criminal court fees are some of the reasons drivers lose their  licenses.

For nearly everyone who made their way through the West Palm Beach courthouse, the reason why their license was suspended was financial — they could not afford to pay the original debt that continued to balloon overtime. After 90 days, an unpaid court debt is sent to collection, where late fines and other costs — up to 40 percent of the original amount owed — are added on.
 

A bill currently making its way though the House and Senate proposes reinstating licenses that were suspended before July 1, 2020, solely because of unpaid fines and fees, and would create a uniform statewide payment plan based on what a person can afford. Currently, repayment plans vary county to county.

In the interim, some people rely on one-day events like Operation Greenlight to get back on the road legally.

Charles Shawn joined the line at the West Palm Beach courthouse at around 6:30 a.m. There were already 100 people in front of him.

Shawn’s license was suspended because he had criminal court costs he hadn't paid, along with a few traffic fines. Then came the collection costs. 

“When they put it in a collection agency, there's not a lot you can [do]. Go talk to them and they don't want to hear it,” he said. “It’s not right, cause I wasn’t working at the time.”

At this one-day event, the people who attended were able to get the up-to-40 percent in collection costs waived. Also, they could either pay off the original amount owed in full or get on a payment plan to pay it off. Once that was done, they became eligible to get their licenses back on the spot, inside a Department of Motor Vehicle van parked in front of the courthouse.

Shawn heard about Operation Greenlight from a friend. Just over an hour after he went into the courthouse, he was one his way to getting his license back.

“Today I paid $300 and I'm paying $90 a month,” he said. “ I still owe, after all that, $2,000, but I'm able to get my license at the same time and just keep paying my, you know, payment plan.”

Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock said her goal is to get as many people in Palm Beach County area driving legally again because the consequences over time can be severe.

“You can be arrested for driving with a suspended license — you're now in jail. You may lose your job. You may have and get a record. You may actually spiral by losing your job,” she said.

While many acknowledge the streamlined process at a one-day event like Operation Greenlight is helpful, it’s  not enough to tackle the nearly two million suspended driver’s licenses statewide.

According to Florida's Court Clerks and Comptrollers, last year statewide nearly 2,000 licenses were reinstated at Operation Green Light and about 10,000 driver licenses were made eligible for reinstatement.

“Operation Green Light is a small Band-Aid for a very large problem,” said Ashley Thomas, Florida state director for the Fines & Fees Justice Center.

In a recent study, the center found nearly 72 percent of suspended licenses in Florida are related to unpaid debt.

“Debt-based suspensions make up the majority of suspension notices that go out each year,” she said.

And while Operation Greenlight was a success for some, not everyone was able to go through the entire process.

Daisy Bivins, a Lake Worth resident, stood in line for about an hour at the courthouse before walking out.

I have 15 rods and screws in my back. So I can't stand up that long,” she said. “They should have a line for disabled people and non-disabled people. That’s what they should have done.”

A lot of other people walked out of the long lines, too. They can always come back to set up a payment plan, but the collection fees won’t be waived and the DMV won’t be there to give them their licenses back on the spot. 

Those who could make it through the long lines said their driver’s licenses are their livelihoods.

Michael Harris’ license was suspended for five years. He was able to get $600 waived in collections costs that had been added on to his $1,100 debt.

Harris owed the money from a criminal court  case, something that had nothing to do with his driving. He said he didn’t know his driver’s license could get suspended for that. 

“They didn’t tell me that,” he said.

After paying, he went to the DMV truck parked outside the courthouse and within minutes got back his license.

I can get a better position at work ,” said Harris, who drives a forklift and stripes roads. Without a license, he couldn't get any of the better paying jobs driving a work truck.

“I can move up and pay. I could get a $2 raise,” he said.