What to Know
- A Long Island college student was stunned to learn he had been driving around with a suspended license, and had received no warning
- Between Jan. 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt
- According to a study, zip codes on Long Island have some of the highest rates of suspension in New York – particularly in poor communities
When 21-year-old Stony Brook University student Owen Li was stopped by a Suffolk County police officer, he was shocked to learn his license was suspended and he should not have been driving.
“I was very surprised. I didn't know what had happened,” said the Chinese college student. “I didn’t receive anything or any mail that said you have suspended license or suspended plates."
He contacted attorney Kenneth Mollins who has represented several clients with the same problem.
“Many times life interferes and people can't pay the tickets and sometimes they just forget," said Mollins.
Li says his license was suspended because he failed to pay for his tickets. He says he never received notification because he had moved to a different dormitory at school. That violation — and the fees involved — multiplied over time.
Attorney Joanna Weiss of the Fines and Fees Justice Center says it’s easy for violations to increase very quickly.
“You get five tickets and you can’t pay them,” Weiss offered as an example. “That’s five suspensions right there. And if you didn’t show up in court for those it could be another five.”
Li was able to pay for his tickets which he said amounted to thousands of dollars. But in many cases people can’t afford the fines and face a very harsh consequence.
In New York State, drivers can lose their licenses for reckless behavior like driving under the influence or gaining too many driving violation points. But according to a new report by the Driven by Justice Coalition, many times licenses are suspended for unpaid traffic debt.
The report showed that between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt. Despite this, 75 percent of suspended drivers continue to drive to get to work and appointments.
“Two thirds of suspensions were for non-payment or not answering a traffic ticket,” said Weiss. “These aren’t issues of dangerous driving, these are poverty related issues.”
According to their study, ZIP codes on Long Island have some of the highest rates of suspension in New York state – particularly in poor communities.
While the statewide average in New York is 4 percent, in Wyandanch there were more than 2000 license suspensions, which is 17 percent of the drivers in that ZIP code. In Mastic Beach, the percentage was 12.
Suffolk County Police say they are strictly enforcing the law and that “enforcement is a necessary element of the department’s day-to-day efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of all residents.”
A proposed bill in both the New York Senate and Assembly could bring changes. The law would limit the grounds for suspending a drivers license, provides extra notification of court appearances to drivers and would allow fines to be paid through a payment plan, to help low income drivers.