By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The Alabama senator who pushed in the 2022 legislative session for longer grace periods before Alabamians lose their licenses because of unpaid traffic tickets and court fines said he wants to see the bill introduced again in 2023.
Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, recently said on Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal that people can pay on their fines for several years, but miss one payment and lose their licenses.
“I think that’s punitive,” Barfoot said. “Certainly, there comes a point in time where if you’re not paying your court-ordered court costs and fines, we should suspend your license, amongst other things … but I think some jurisdictions are using it prematurely.”
The bill quickly and easily cleared the Alabama Senate earlier this year, but died in the House without a final vote on the last day of the session.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall opposed the bill and earlier this summer told Capitol Journal part of his opposition was because the same issue was the center of a federal court case.
“We were actively litigating that very issue in the courts when this bill was dropped in the middle of the legislative session,” Marshall said.
In 2019, a Montgomery woman, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit against Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Hal Taylor, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for herself and “all individuals whose driver’s licenses are suspended for nonpayment of traffic tickets.”
She had lost her license over about $300 in fines that she said she couldn’t pay in 2013.
The district court and then the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in May dismissed the case, citing statute of limitations issues.
Marshall’s office on Tuesday said it had no comment on proposed legislation in 2023.
Barfoot said it didn’t allow people to go “scot free” without paying fines or showing up in court.
Senate Bill 117 in the 2022 session said courts could only suspend a license for failure to pay a fine, fee, or court cost if the “individual fails to make half or more of the required payments within one year of the court’s order, or fails to make any additional payments one year after the court’s order.
The Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and its Workers Drive Alabama have advocated in the last year to end suspensions.
Appleseed research director Leah Nelson said there was a contentious spring House Judiciary Committee meeting on the bill, but it led to needed conversations about road safety and what the bill does.
“People have legitimate questions about this,” Nelson said. “…The most important thing to understand is that right now, people’s driver’s licenses can be suspended because they accumulate points on their license for habitual dangerous driving and there is nothing about that that would change as a result of our legislation. We don’t want that to change.
“ …But we have a parallel system of suspending your license for unpaid tickets. And that doesn’t make sense.”
Barfoot said not having a license isn’t just a transportation issue. He said some large employers require a driver’s license as a condition of employment.
A UAB report earlier this year said the state of Alabama is losing $804.86 in tax revenue per suspended license, even after collecting the court debt.
Nelson said Appleseed will continue to advocate to lawmakers leading up the March 2023 session that people in Alabama shouldn’t lose their licenses because they’re poor.
Barfoot is currently the vice-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but said he’s told leadership he’d like to be chairman in the new quadrennium that begins next year. Current chairman Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Whatley, lost his primary bid.
Nelson said it is not known who might sponsor the bill in the House.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, sponsored the House version. She will not be in that chamber next year because she is the Democrat nominee for a state Senate seat.