Courtesy/Fines And Fees Justice Center (FFJC)
SANTA FE — The Santa Fe City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance Wednesday night that limits the widespread practice of suspending driver’s licenses when residents can’t afford to immediately pay a fine or fee.
Currently, thousands of New Mexicans can’t legally drive simply because they are trapped in a cycle of debt and their access to safe and legal transportation is limited. Over a recent three-year period, New Mexico suspended over 215,000 residents’ driver’s licenses because the person could not afford to pay their court debt or missed a court appointment.
The new ordinance does not eliminate suspensions and revocations based on dangerous driving (DUI, accrued points, etc.) or relating to overdue child support. It also will not limit the court’s discretion to impose sanctions in criminal and traffic cases.
“This will help many hard-working families get back on the road and back to work,” Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said. “This will boost Santa Fe’s overall economy and improve the quality of life for many Santafeans and those from surrounding communities.”
Councilmembers emphasized that legislative reform remains needed at the state level to better address this problem. In the last five years, 22 states — including Texas, Colorado and Arizona — have passed reforms to curb license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees.
“It’s imperative for New Mexico’s future that state lawmakers add New Mexico to this list when the legislature reconvenes next year,” Councilor Jamie Cassutt said. “No one benefits when we keep parents out of work and children out of school and daycare.”
Statewide, 65 percent of voters oppose debt-based license suspensions — and in Santa Fe, 83 percent of voters oppose this practice. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans oppose debt-based license suspensions, as do both men and women in all regions of the state.
“When New Mexico takes a license away from a working father or mother, they are condemning them to a life without the ability to support their families,” Councilwoman Renee Villarreal said. “Creating alternatives to debt-based driver’s license suspensions is an easy change to ensure that people are not forced to choose between supporting their family or getting into debt.”
“Debt-based suspensions make it harder for New Mexicans to get to work, take care of their families, and pay their debts,” Monica Ault said, New Mexico State Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC). “It’s encouraging to see elected officials working together to improve our economy by keeping hard-working New Mexicans on the road and on the job.”