New Georgia Law Could Help 100,000 Drivers Avoid License Suspensions

May 28, 2022
Key Points
  • More than one hundred thousand drivers have their licenses suspended each year in Georgia for failing to pay traffic fines on time.
  • Many of the roughly fifty-thousand people arrested annually in Georgia for driving on suspended licenses lose their jobs as a result.
  • A new state law aims to curb chances in Georgia for drivers to lose their license for missed fine payments.

The Gist

There’s less chance Georgians, and some visitors, may lose their driver’s licenses for failing to pay tickets for minor traffic infractions under a new law that gives judges more leeway in suspending licenses.

What’s Happening

Around 105,000 drivers have their licenses suspended each year in Georgia for failing to pay traffic fines within three months, according to the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project. That could happen for minor speeding violations, a broken taillight or not coming to a full stop at a stop sign.

State law requires drivers who don’t pay fines for traffic violations to face a “failure to appear in court” violation and automatically have their license suspended until the fine is paid.

This chart shows the number of speeding tickets issued in Georgia in recent years and how much revenue the state has collected from fines. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Coleen Shane, a 47-year-old network security engineer from San Diego, was driving through Georgia to visit her sister in September 2020 when she was pulled over for speeding. Months later, she was notified her California license had been suspended for “failure to appear” in Georgia – even though she says she paid a $200 fine online.

“There were some kind of additional fees that caused the suspension,” Shane said. “I got my license reinstated, but it could have totally affected my job since I travel a lot.”

Legislation signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month would curb chances for drivers like Shane to lose their license for missed fine payments. Sponsored by state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), the bill gives local judges the ability to halt license suspensions for minor traffic violations, rather than a suspension automatically taking effect.

“A driver’s license means a job,” said state Rep. Tyler Smith (R-Bremen), who carried Jones’ bill in the Georgia House of Representatives. “A lot of times [drivers] have to choose between going to court or losing a job. And sometimes, it’s just confusing.”

Why It Matters

Roughly half of Georgia drivers who lose their licenses also end up losing jobs because of not being able to drive to work or the stigma of having a court record, according to the Georgia Justice Project.

Even then, most drivers in Georgia with suspended licenses still hop in their cars to commute. Around 50,000 people are arrested annually in Georgia for driving on suspended licenses, according to the nonprofit.

Thousands of Georgians are arrested each year for failing to pay fines for speeding tickets. (Credit: Canva)

Court-reform advocates stress not all those arrested for traffic violations are dangerous motorists. Take the case of 25-year-old Jasmin Sosa.

In 2015, Sosa received a nearly $300 ticket for speeding in North Georgia – a fine she struggled to pay on a $100 weekly salary. Two years later, she was pulled over for turning left at a right-only stop sign, arrested and jailed in DeKalb County for several hours until her mother posted bail. She had no idea her license was suspended from the 2015 speeding ticket.

“I’ve carried a lot of shame,” Sosa said. “My forgetfulness gets me in trouble.”

Sosa said she feels some cautious optimism with the new law, but her treatment by police and the court convinced her she was punished more for being forgetful than her original infraction. “I’d love to put this behind me,” she said, but her court record has often forced her to explain her arrest to roommates, employers and romantic partners.

“The system set me up for failure in a lot of ways,” Sosa said.

Jobs Impact

License suspensions most hurt Georgians who are already struggling, said Doug Ammar, the Georgia Justice Project’s executive director. Studies show that having a license can help workers on federal public aid hold down a job even more than a high-school diploma can. 

“Having a driver's license is the most correlative thing to getting a job and keeping a job than any other data point in the country,” Ammar said. “It's almost essential if you want people to work and keep working.”

Doug Ammar is the executive director of the Georgia Justice Project. (Credit: Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon for State Affairs)

The new law won’t let every driver in Georgia off the hook for license suspensions. Serious violations – such as driving under the influence, drag racing or vehicular homicide – will still trigger an automatic suspension.

Georgia’s Department of Driver Services (DDS) also suspends licenses upon a judge’s orders when a parent required to pay child support fails to do so. Those suspensions would remain unchanged by the new law.

Judges could also carry out license suspensions if they find a driver to be a danger on the road, said Tony West, deputy state director of the nonprofit Americans for Prosperity. That leeway strikes a balance between penalizing reckless drivers and giving safe drivers a pass, he said.

"The point of the bill is to allow a judge to make that call,” West said. “You don't want the criminal justice system penalizing people and making it harder for them to be productive citizens if they're not a threat to public safety."

What’s Next?

It’s tough to forecast how often local judges will choose to halt license suspensions rather than let them take effect under the new law, said Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which monitors local and state courts.

Georgia traffic courts already have communications systems for quickly conveying judges’ orders on license suspensions to the state DDS, Shaw said. DDS only yanks license privileges if a judge’s order requires a suspension, said Susan Sports, a DDS spokeswoman.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services is responsible for carrying out judges' orders to suspend driver's licenses for failure to pay fines for traffic violations. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Ammar, of the Georgia Justice Project, said feedback he’s heard from many local judges and prosecutors who support the new law gives him confidence most courts will avoid automatic license suspensions for missed fine payments.

“Many of them didn't like [automatic suspensions],” Ammar said, referring to judges and prosecutors he’s spoken to about the new law. “They didn't like what it did to people, but they didn’t have another option.”

Going forward, court-reform groups like the Georgia Justice Project aim to push future legislation that would require fine notices to be sent via email or text messages. They also plan to pursue law changes that allow low-income traffic violators to do community service instead of paying steep fines, Ammar said.

“Poor folks often don't have the money [to pay fines],” Ammar said. “So they're left with this conundrum [that] leads to them not going back to court, and now the problems are all going downhill.”

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