Lawmakers Hear Testimony on Driver's License Suspensions

Jan 21, 2020

 

Lawmakers hear testimony on a bill to make it harder for the DMV to suspend drivers' licenses.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Lawmakers are continuing to hear testimony on a bill that would make it harder for the state to suspend drivers licenses for non-driving offenses.

Under current law, the N.H. Division of Motor Vehicles can suspend someone's driver's license for failure to appear for a court date, failure to pay fines, and conviction of a crime of “moral turpitude.”

Buzz Scherr, a UNH law professor and criminal justice reform advocate, said the current system targeted poor people and was counterproductive.

“It's an upside-down, backwards thing to do,” he told the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “If you want people to show up for court and they fail to, you don't want to take their license away and make it harder for them to show up to court.”

Court administrators argued the threat of losing one's license - called the motor vehicle default process - only kicks in after people fail to respond to letters about unpaid fines and missed court dates. 

Paula Hurley, an administrator with the Circuit Court, said it was the state’s most effective method of pressuring people to follow the law.

“It’s like a shoulder tap to a person who ignores their obligations,” she told lawmakers last week. “If you remove the consequences for ignoring court obligation, what incentive does any member of the public have to comply with laws that you pass?”

Hurley said the state collects $8 million to $9 million in fines annually, in part because of the incentive

"It's an upside-down, backwards thing to do." - Buzz Scherr, UNH Law

   of the motor vehicle default process.

Jeanne Hruska, the political director of the ACLU in New Hampshire, which helped craft the proposed bill, said that didn’t justify the practice.

“Suspending a person’s driver’s license imposes hardship,” she told lawmakers. “Whether or not that hardship compels action is secondary to the fact that the government is intentionally inflicting harm on its people. Suspending drivers’ licenses for non-driving related reasons is bad policy.” 

The new legislation would still allow the state to incarcerate someone who had not paid their fines, but that person would have a right to an attorney before being sentenced.

Members of the transportation committee are expected to modify the proposed bill and incorporate concerns from the Circuit, Superior, and Family Court systems. The committee is also expected to create a study committee to look at whether drug offenders should be given temporary licenses to participate in drug court and treatment programs.