SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new law going into effect June 16 will let New Mexicans keep their driver’s licenses even if they fail to appear in court. Also, soon hundreds of thousands of people will be automatically given back their licenses.

Until now, New Mexico’s Motor Vehicle Division was legally allowed to suspend the driver’s license of people who failed to appear in court. The state could also suspend licenses for people who don’t pay speeding tickets or other fines.

“Over 300,00 New Mexicans had their license suspended for missing a payment or missing a hearing in a traffic case,” said Monica Ault, the New Mexico state director for the Fines & Fees Justice Center advocacy group. “Essentially one in five licensed drivers have had their license suspended.”

Ault says those suspensions, tallied by the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department, can have a big impact on New Mexicans who rely on driving to get to work or school.

“What these types of license suspensions do is they force an impossible choice: You stop driving and you lose access to work and basic necessities. Or you keep driving, you risk more fines and fees, arrest, and even incarceration,” Ault said.

License revocations seem to impact rural New Mexicans more than city dwellers, research from the Fines & Fees Justice Center shows. A survey of 511 New Mexicans revealed that those from rural and semi-rural areas were 31% more likely to have their license suspended due to court issues than New Mexicans from urban areas.

Part of the challenge for rural New Mexicans is that they might not always know they’ve been ordered to come to court. So, they might end up getting in trouble, Ault explains.

“Sometimes what happens, especially in a state that’s rural like ours, is that you have a physical address and you have a mailing address. Your physical address is on your license. That’s what they are going to send that notice to. So you never get notice, so you never go to that hearing,” Ault said.

Now, the system is changing. During the 2023 lawmaking session, the state’s lawmakers rewrote the rules surrounding license suspensions. The state’s Motor Vehicle Division can no longer suspend licenses for failure to appear in traffic court. All currently suspended licenses will be reinstated, for free, by September of 2023.

While advocates see the new law as good news for New Mexico, the state’s court system says it will mean more people skip out on court hearings or pay fines.

“On September 1, 2023, automatic restoration of suspended licenses will occur, including the license of nonresident drivers who remain noncompliant with court orders in New Mexico. These nonresident drivers have no reason to fear a bench warrant because warrants are only valid in the state of New Mexico,” Barry Massey, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts told KRQE News 13. “Also, more drivers respond to the court when they are notified of the potential license suspension than the notice that a bench warrant has been issued. Bench warrants tend to drive people away from the courts. Now, when a person fails to appear in court, the only option the court has is to issue a bench warrant.”

Ault, from the Fines & Fees Justice Center, argues that even without the ability to suspend licenses, New Mexico’s courts still have tools to ensure compliance. For example, Ault says the new law doesn’t eliminate any debt from unpaid fines. So, that debt could act as an incentive to comply and pay.