New Jersey would scale back, though not eliminate, the use of driver’s license suspensions as a punishment for offenses that aren’t related to safely operating a motor vehicle, under a bill on the cusp of legislative approval.

Mandatory license suspensions would be eliminated for 11 crimes. A judge would gain discretion to decide whether to order licenses suspended for seven other categories of crimes, as well as for cases in which a warrant is issued for unpaid child support.

“We’ve seen too many people get caught up in the vicious cycle of not being able to get a license because they can’t pay fines, but they can’t get to and from work to earn money to pay the fines if they can’t get a license,” said Assemblyman James Kennedy, D-Union.

Although the bill is rooted in the same concerns as a July 2018 state Supreme Court committee report concluding that municipal courts’ excessive use of license suspensions and bench warrants makes it appear tickets are designed to be revenue generators, testimony from the judiciary prompted the Legislature to change the bill to ensure licenses could still be suspended in some cases.

Specifically, the bill was going to end license suspensions in cases where a person fails to pay imposed fines, assessments or restitution. Earlier version of the bill moved that to the no-suspensions-allowed list, but state judiciary officials objected. Instead, it will be left to a judge to decide.

Jacqueline Augustine, a legislative liaison for the judiciary, told lawmakers that by banning license suspensions for defaults on financial obligations without good cause would leave them to use other enforcement options – some of them even more severe.

“We would be faced with a situation where we couldn’t suspend a license, but we could send somebody to jail for not paying a financial obligation,” Augustine said.

Brenda Beacham, the judiciary’s assistant director for probation services, said license suspensions are how the courts coerce payment from people who can afford it. She said that a couple years ago, the revenue from collections plunged by over $1 million for the state temporarily stopped suspending driver’s licenses for a period of time.

“These victims and funds will suffer without the enforcement tool of driver’s license suspensions for those who have the means and willfully choose not to pay,” Beacham said.

“When a defendant chooses not to pay what is ordered, the victim is revictimized,” she said.

The bill eliminates mandatory driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for 11 crimes that aren’t related to unsafe operation of a car, including underage drinking or gambling, failing to appear in municipal court and failing to pay car insurance premiums.

“A person in New Jersey can actually lose their driver’s license for one year for an act of graffiti they may have committed when they were 13 years old, years before they could legally get a license,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson. “It’s idiotic scenarios like this that the bill seeks to address.”

Another six crimes were on that list in earlier versions of the legislation but got erased along the way, including car insurance fraud and using a motor vehicle while committing a crime, including prostitution. Insurance fraud suspensions would still be allowed, but only if related to damages from a car crash.

A judge would have discretion to impose that penalty for seven categories of crimes, such as carjacking by a juvenile, theft or unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, selling or possessing a fake ID and failure to have car insurance.

The bill limits license suspensions to six month in drug cases, the minimum required by federal law.

Earlier versions of the bill would have created a restricted-used driver’s license endorsement allowing people to drive to and from work, school, the doctor or child care, even if their licenses were revoked for failing to pay motor vehicle surcharges or for having too many motor vehicle penalty points.

That has now been eliminated.

Driver’s licenses are suspended around 660,000 times a year in New Jersey.

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