Traffic tickets in Kansas can cost low-income drivers their licenses. There’s a new law to help

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Traffic tickets for low-income drivers can snowball into thousands of dollars of debt and revoked licenses. A new law aims to reduce fines and fees to help get them reinstated.

TOPEKA — Frank Meade originally lost his driver’s license nearly 40 years ago.

When he was young, Meade was fined for driving drunk. But he couldn’t afford the cost and the state suspended his license.

That didn’t stop him from using his vehicle for the many years following, and he wound up racking up a load of debt from traffic violation fines and court fees. He would need to pay those if he ever hoped to have a legal driver’s license again.

“I just continued driving and continued driving and they just stacked up,” Meade told the Kansas News Service. “I had more fines and fees than I could even begin to deal with.”

It’s a cycle many people get stuck in. They lose their license and can’t afford to pay the fines to get it reinstated. That means they drive illegally to places like work or risk losing their jobs and livelihoods. But that might become less common under a new law.

Meade, a 62-year-old Topeka resident, is now retired and lives on a fixed income. He said at one point his debt was up to $3,000 — an amount he would never be able to cover.

Kansas Legal Services, a nonprofit law group serving low-income clients, helped Meade resolve his remaining traffic violations and the state fees required to reinstate a driver’s license.

Finally, for the first time in decades, Meade is driving with a legal license. He can now easily travel to important meetings with his probation officer and to Alcoholics Anonymous to help him remain sober. Otherwise, he would have had to spend hours using public transportation each day.

“It’s already made my life so much simpler,” Meade said.

Kansas Legal Services plans to help more low-income Kansans get similar help reducing fines, resolving court cases and getting their driver’s licenses back in good standing.

The new law may also provide relief by consolidating and reducing fines and fees drivers need to pay to get their license reinstated.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who signed the bill into law on Friday, said in a news release that it’s a necessary reform to help people keep their jobs and pay off their fines. She said it also allows courts to restrict, rather than suspend, licenses so drivers can still travel to school, work and other essential activities.

“This bill puts a stop to the cycle of hardship that Kansans face when their drivers license is suspended,” Kelly said in the news release.

Legal help

As of August 2023, more than 200,000 Kansans — roughly 7% of the state’s 2.9 million population — had suspended or revoked licenses, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. The majority of those suspensions and revocations stemmed from unpaid tickets for traffic violations.

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Attorney Micah Tempel, director for Kansas Legal Services’ Driver’s License Restoration Project, said his program has focused on helping hundreds of low-income clients in the Topeka area. So far this year, he has helped 175 drivers and about 20 of them have already resolved their cases and were reinstated to legally drive.

Next year, Tempel plans to take the program statewide.

Attorney Micah Tempel sits at his desk in the Kansas Legal Services' office.
Attorney Micah Tempel of Kansas Legal Services has helped hundreds of low-income drivers in Topeka work to get their licenses reinstated. He plans to take the program statewide in 2025.

He said many Kansas drivers who get a traffic ticket that they can’t afford will drive with a suspended license and rack up more tickets with fines. They also need to pay fees for each ticket that wasn’t paid on time to get their license reinstated by the state.

The courts can also send the unpaid fines to debt collectors, which will add interest to the original fines. The problem can quickly get out of hand as the fees and fines snowball into thousands of dollars of debt.

“It disproportionately impacts the low-income people in the community,” Tempel said. “If you can’t afford the first fine, then you definitely can’t afford it after all the fees are tacked on later on.”

Tempel said that problem is often at odds with reality, because the drivers facing the fines and fees need to work to receive income to pay for them. But many who have a suspended license end up losing their jobs as well because they can’t get to work.

His program focuses on educating Kansans with suspended or revoked licenses on how they can get them reinstated. It often includes getting them a court date so they can ask a judge for relief from their unpaid fines and fees. In some cases, the court will waive them all.

In Meade’s case, the court waived all of his remaining fees. He said the only fee he ended up paying was for a driver’s test to get his license reinstated.

“That man is a godsend,” Meade said of Tempel. “I’ve been blessed more than I probably deserve.”

New law

The new law aims to address the financial burden of drivers facing multiple fines and fees. It is set to go into effect in January 2025.

Democratic state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita has been pushing for changes to the state’s rules on suspended licenses for years. She said she’s met with many people in the Wichita area who struggle with suspended or revoked licenses.

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Currently, the state charges a driver a $100 license reinstatement fee for each ticket they failed to pay. That adds more financial penalties on drivers who are already unable to pay their fine. To provide financial relief in those cases, the law reduces the reinstatement fees to only one $100 charge, regardless of the number of tickets.

“You can have multiple traffic violations,” Faust-Goudeau said, “but you only pay $100 for all of them.”

Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau stands in the Kansas Senate.
Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau has pushed for years to pass legislation to help low-income drivers with suspended or revoked licenses.

The law also allows a judge to determine when to reinstate a license and reduce fines and fees. Tempel said that means the court could allow a driver back onto the road before they finish paying off what they owe. The court will also continue to have the authority to waive those fines and fees.

In some cases, drivers may never know their license is suspended until they are issued a new traffic violation, resulting in the license being revoked. The state currently suspends licenses without warning for failing to pay ticket fines. It can also be suspended when a driver misses payments on car insurance.

The new law attempts to eliminate that surprise, and requires the state to give drivers a written notice and 60 days more to resolve their issues. Faust-Goudeau said that will give drivers a better chance at keeping their license from being suspended in the first palace.

“It will give you another opportunity to take care of that situation, to avoid that suspension,” Faust-Goudeau said in an interview.

The Kansas Legislature passed the new law with broad bipartisan support.

Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg thanked Faust-Goudeau on the Senate floor for continuing to push for the legislation. She said Faust-Goudeau didn’t give up despite frustration caused by the Legislature’s inability to pass a bill sooner.

“I appreciate that we as a body could come to a solution,” Baumgardner said, “that we hope that will be impactful – not just in her Senate district – but throughout the state.”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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