By Elizabeth Frock, PBS Newshour.
In 2010, Fernando Trujillo, a skinny, kind-hearted 18-year-old with a penchant for mischief, got his driver’s license taken away. He was caught smoking pot in the parking lot of a shopping mall and charged with possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.
The charges came with $150 in fines. Trujillo had just finished high school, and without a job, he did not have the money to pay it. With his fines left unpaid, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division suspended his driver’s license.
But without a license, Trujillo could not get a job. New Mexico is a state with large swaths of rural areas, characterized by desert, mountains and mesas, where public transportation is not widely available. Even in Española, the city where he lived, the bus did not show up regularly. Without a job, he could not save up to pay the fines.
“You can’t do anything in this life without having an ID,” said Trujillo, who is now a policy fellow at Bold Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people of color and women in New Mexico. “You can’t rent a room. You can’t operate a motorized vehicle. And you can’t get a job.”
Trujillo also did not have a way to get to court without a license. After he missed a hearing, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest, which came with another $100 fee as bond. He would go on to spend years in and out of jail after getting the failure to appear. “But what choice do you have?” he said. “You drive and you take that risk. Or you don’t show up, and you take that risk also. Either way it leaves you kind of screwed.”
Thousands of lost licenses
It is common in the U.S. for drivers to lose a license for reckless driving or driving while under the influence. In New Mexico, which has one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country, licenses may also be suspended for a failure to pay a variety of court fines and fees, a failure to appear in court, and other offenses unrelated to driving. The policy has existed since a 1978 state statute; a decade after Trujillo lost his license for failing to pay his court fines, little has changed.
According to Angela Pacheco, a former Santa Fe district attorney and a current part-time judge in the municipal court there, the original idea behind the policy was to get a person’s attention, so they would pay their debt or show up in court.“The hardship that the suspension of licenses creates is unbelievable.”
But New Mexico criminal justice reform advocates, attorneys and formerly incarcerated people told the PBS NewsHour that the policy is counterproductive. Without a driver’s license, they said, it is nearly impossible for a person to keep a job, take a child to school or get to the grocery store, much less pay fines and fees or comply with court requirements. Many take the risk and drive anyway, leading to an additional charge of driving on a suspended license, which comes with the potential of more fees, fines and possible jail time. And once people get out of jail, if they don’t have a license, they may not be able to get to a job, which can increase the possibility of recidivism.
Pacheco agrees the policy is misguided. “The hardship that the suspension of licenses creates is unbelievable,” she said.
In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report that investigated the high financial costs of court fines and fees in 10 counties across Texas, Florida, and New Mexico. (Fines are monetary penalties for an infraction or crime, while fees are payments for court activities that may be added on top of that.) The bipartisan law and public policy institute’s report strongly critiqued the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees, and described a “cycle of repeated contact with the criminal justice system.”