The Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held over a controversial piece of legislation in a subcommittee that would limit courts from being able to suspend driver’s licenses of people who do not pay their fines and fees.

The legislation is opposed by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R).

House Bill 200 (HB200) is sponsored by State Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham).

Coleman said that this bill was prepared initially by Alabama Appleseed to address the problem of too many people being "too poor to pay the fine."

According to Alabama Appleseed, “Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every job seeker. Something’s got to change.

“This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions, while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.”

Coleman said that she thought that she had consensus from all of the groups on passage this week and then, an hour and a half before it was to be brought up in committee, the Alabama Attorney General’s office sent an email from the AG announcing that they were opposing this legislation.

In introducing the bill for Appleseed, Coleman said, “This bill will do so much. This bill has been out there for months. Alabama Appleseed has been working on this for three years and an hour and a half before this I get an email from the AG’s office.

“I hope that we don’t accept this as a legislative body. They have turned a blind eye on pieces of legislation that were unconstitutional on their face.

“I know it is coming into a subcommittee,” Coleman said.

Coleman said that many Alabamians struggle to pay fines and court costs. Coleman cited a study that showed that paying the fines and fees cause some poor motorists to have to forgo basic needs; some were forced to seek charity they would not have sought otherwise; many took out a payday loan; and some admitted to committing crimes to pay their fines and court costs in order to keep their license.

Rep. Mike Ball (R-Madison) said, “A lot of people do not have sympathy for poor people or people who are trying to claw their way up. I grew up this way.”

Ball said that people like the AG, “They get in that bubble, and they will find people who will kill and undermine your legislation.

“I have been trying to get something done with ethics for years and they won’t even answer my phone call,” Ball said. “It is not going to get any better.”

The House Judiciary Committee is chaired by State Rep. Jim Hill (R-Odenville).

According to the fiscal note for this bill prepared by Hill: “House Bill 200 as introduced prohibits the suspension of a driver license by: 1) the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) for failure to appear in court for a traffic violation post adjudication compliance review; and 2) the courts for failure to pay a fine, fee, court cost or restitution as a result of a traffic violation.

“This bill also provides that the provisions of the bill are remedial and shall apply retroactively. This would decrease revenues to the State General Fund and the Public Safety Fund, by an undetermined amount, dependent upon the number of reinstated licenses that are provided to individuals that had their driver’s license suspended and request ALEA to reinstate the license at no charge. According to ALEA, current reinstatement fees range between $100 and $150 dollars, dependent upon the violation convicted of, of which the $150 fee is distributed one-half into the State General Fund and one-half into the Public Safety Fund; and the $100 is distributed two-thirds into the State General Fund and one-third into the Public Safety Fund.

“Further the provisions of this bill could also reduce receipts to the various funds that court costs, fines, fees, and restitution are distributed to, by an undetermined amount, dependent upon the number of individuals that fail to pay these court costs, fines, fees, and restitution. In addition, this bill could increase the administrative obligations of ALEA and the Supreme Court of Alabama to adopt rules to implement the provisions of this bill. Finally, if the provisions of this bill are enacted, federal funds received by ALEA could be decreased by a significant undetermined amount for each year the state is not in compliance with federal law.”

There are concerns in the law enforcement community that this bill could be costly for many local governments as well as the court system due to the loss of revenue. There are also public safety concerns that taking away the threat of a punishing fine could lead to more risky behavior by motorists.

“We will take it up next week,” Chairman Hill said.

HB200 has been assigned to a subcommittee.

Coleman is a candidate for State Senate in SD19.

Tuesday will be Day 22 of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative Session. The legislature is limited to just 30 legislative days in a legislative session.

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