NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A bipartisan effort is working its way through the Roundhouse to let people whose licenses are suspended get them back without having to pay a fee. As it stands now, if you’re racking up a lot of tickets and not paying them, or don’t show up in court, one of the consequences could be getting your license suspended—and you’d have to pay to get it back.
However, this bill is trying to do away with that extra fee, as long as your offenses are minor. “Our current system is set up so that if you don’t pay a fine or fee or you don’t appear in court, there’s an option of suspending a driver’s license. And this bill would end that practice which is really important because of this cycle of debt,” says Senator Peter Wirth, (D-Santa Fe) Senate Majority Floor Leader. “Essentially, taking away someone’s driver’s license if they can’t pay a fine certainly is not going to encourage getting that fine paid. It’s just going to create a crisis quite frankly in that family.”
“Obviously, someone who is struggling and is having trouble paying those debts needs to have their vehicle so they can be going to work and earning the money to pay those debts and so again, I think that’s really the basis behind this bill,” Wirth says.
The bill is pre-filed for this legislative session and calls for the automatic reinstatement of a license without a fee if the reason the license was suspended in the first place has to do with unpaid fines or failing to appear in court. “This focuses on civil fines and failure to appear. It’s very important that the bill does not remove the ability to take away someone’s driver’s license if they commit a whole range of felonies or another kind of serious criminal level issues,” Wirth says.
Sen. Wirth emphasizes this bipartisan bill would still hold someone accountable for any original penalties that sparked the suspension. For example, the fee for a traffic ticket.
“Really it comes down to what’s the purpose of the fine and the fee? Obviously, we want to get those paid and they’re on the books. But the remedy of taking away a driver’s license is not going to help us get those fines paid. If anything, it’s going to make it that much harder to get them paid,” Wirth says.
Local drivers’ reactions to this bill are mixed. “The people that get the citations have a right to go before the judge, explain their situation, and the judge has the authority to say, ‘hey, you know what, I’m gonna let it go because there’s a hardship involved; some compelling reason why they should be let off the hook. Otherwise, you know what, the people that intentionally get the fines, knowing very well that they’re just going to get a slap on the wrist, I don’t agree with that part,” says Michael, an Albuquerque resident.
“I think, you know, people get behind in things. And I think probably you’re going to find that an awful lot of those people are low-income people. And they really need a driver’s license….I think that it would be a good idea to do a fresh start for everybody,” says Joe Smith from Albuquerque.
Sen. Wirth says they tried to pass a similar bill in 2021 but weren’t able to get it passed in time. They’re hopeful this time, it’ll make it to the governor’s desk.
The City of Santa Fe passed a similar ordinance last July ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions for minor traffic tickets. Senator Wirth says since New Mexico has a high poverty level, this is an important discussion to take up in the Roundhouse.