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Lawmakers seek to end the suspension of tens of thousands of licenses a year

Advocacy group The Fines and Fees Justice Center says 40% of people who lose their license lose their job

Between 2019 and 2021 New Mexico suspended more than 183,000 driver's licenses because the driver could not afford to pay court fees or because they missed a hearing, said Senator Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Now, Senate Bill 47, sponsored by Wirth, Representative Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) and Senator Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte), would amend existing legislation to end the suspension of licenses for nonappearance in court or for nonpayment of fines and fees owed in traffic and criminal cases.

Monica Ault, of the advocacy group The Fines and Fees Justice Center said that restricting people's ability to work made them less likely to be able to pay fines.

"This really puts drivers in a very difficult position - you either continue to drive and risk more fines and fees, incarceration, or you stop driving and you lose access to basic necessities, taking care of your family, going to work," she said.

In a handout supplied to lawmakers her organization said 40% of people who lose their license lose their job.

Sen. Diamond emphasized that the change did not eliminate suspensions based on dangerous driving.

"Really what we're doing is making sure that their problems are not compounded and that we don't create this cycle that is simply hard to break out of," she said.

The law would also work retroactively. If drivers have been suspended for nonpayment or nonappearance and are otherwise eligible, their licenses would be reinstated by September this year.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon on Tuesday also advocated for the elimination of post-adjudication fees as a means for funding the judiciary.

The committee passed the bill, noting that it passed similar legislation in 2021 which didn't make it into law before the end of the session. It now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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