I-Team: Critics Call Foul Over Tax Law That Suspends Licenses

Brooklyn resident Ismael Ortiz is one of many New Yorkers was stunned to find his license had been suspended because he owed taxes to the state.

The Williamsburg resident owes more than $17,000 in back taxes and has no way to get around to start paying back the taxes he owes in part because of a state law that the New York Bar Association has called “bad policy.”

“The only way for him to get out of this suspension is to enter into a payment plan,” said Tamara DelCarmen, an attorney working with Ortiz. “But he just can't do that, he has no extra money to pay for anything."

DelCarmen works for Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and has been trying to get Ortiz’s driver's license back. She told the I-Team that because the man a double hip replacement, he hasn’t been able to return to work as a respiratory therapist and therefore can't earn income.

Ortiz has been living on his Social Security disability income of $1,847.50 a month. He’s afraid he’ll never be able to pay the government back, or to get his driver’s license reinstated.

Ortiz initially owed $6,694 in taxes in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. But interest and penalties was applied to that amount, making the total bill balloon up to $17,199. That amount crosses a state threshold of $10,000 in taxes and penalties for the DMV to suspend a driver’s license unless a debtor agrees to a payment plan.

New York State touts the huge success of the program, as total recovered revenue since 2014 tops $438 million.

But a report by the New York State Bar Association called the regulation “bad policy” that mounts to an “inappropriate and disproportionately harsh punishment.” The state Taxation Department said it has seen that report and is reviewing it.

Daniel Hsiung, an attorney for Legal Aid -- which has also helped clients like Ortiz -- said that the regulation is “kind of a punishment for being poor.”

“The illogical nature of this: you’re taking away a property right which is the very right that can help you reach your stated goal, which is to get people to pay their taxes,” said Hsiung.

If Ortiz finds a part-time job, he will need a car to take him to his assignments which can take him across all five boroughs.

If he can come up with $75, he can purchase a restricted license, that will allow him to drive to work and doctor visits. But will not allow him to drive to the grocery store, the Laundromat, or to drive his parents to their appointments with physicians.

“There should be another procedure in place besides the complicated offer in compromise for them to demonstrate they are in financial hardship,” said Hsiung. 

Ortiz says he doesn't have the money to pay for the restricted license so for now he is letting Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A help him fight the suspension.

“I would like to correct the problem,” said Ortiz. “But if they restrict my license there's no way I can resolve the problem.

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