Izell Mayes drove without a license for about 20 years, the result of unpaid traffic tickets, missed court dates and compounding fines that seemed impossible to pay off. Still, the 45-year-old plumber and father had to take his children to school and get to work. When he was eventually pulled over, it meant arrest and more fines.
The worst experience came on a family vacation to a Six Flags amusement park in Texas, when a Louisiana state trooper pulled him over and hauled him away in handcuffs in front of his kids for driving on a suspended license. Afraid of other complications, Mayes avoided court dates, and the bench warrants piled up.
Eventually, he owed nearly $23,000.
Everything changed in 2017 after Mayes attended a warrant clinic in New Orleans that helped people clear old traffic tickets and bench warrants. He arrived at the clinic, held on the grounds of Corpus Christi-Epiphany Roman Catholic Church in the Seventh Ward. For more than 100 years, the church has served one of the nation’s largest communities of Black Catholics—a product of New Orleans’ painful history as a French colony in which Le Code Noire, or Black Code, dictated that slaves were to be baptized in the church.
Researchers say it’s a problem nationwide, affecting millions of people. A 2016 study in California from the East Bay Community Law Center found that license suspensions for failing to pay fines or appear in court are “directly correlated with poverty indicators and with race,” with driver’s license suspension rates ranging as high as five times the state average in communities that are primarily Black or Latino.
California, alone, has an estimated 4.2 million residents with driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid tickets. The diverse state with a strong economy remains the country’s most populous with more than 39.5 million people.
As in many places across the country, housing and job opportunities in New Orleans can be far-flung, with public transit options limited. An automobile can be essential not only for getting to work, but for rising through the ranks at many jobs. Mayes, for instance, had been working in facilities at Louisiana State University, but wasn’t eligible for promotions that required him to drive work vehicles.
The idea for the New Orleans Warrant Clinic was born at a membership meeting of Stand With Dignity, a grassroots group dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights and expanding employment opportunities in the city. At one group meeting, people were discussing how to secure more jobs for local residents on an airport expansion project when a member raised his hand.
“He said, ‘If you really wanna know what I need, I need a driver’s license,’” says Anza Becnel, a community organizer who ran the meeting. “And we felt like that was an easy fix. We’ll just take you to the DMV and get a license.”
The member replied: “Well, I have warrants.”
“The intersection of criminal justice and employment became very real in that moment – criminal justice being a barrier to employment,” says Becnel, who now works for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a Louisiana advocacy organization. “When I say criminal justice, I’m talking about something [like] a traffic ticket can be given as a punishment that will then lock you out of the workforce. So, we should let the punishment fit the crime.”
Becnel and his fellow organizers heard about a clinic run by the public defender’s office at a local homeless shelter. Once a month, a municipal judge visited the shelter and cleared old tickets for those who couldn’t pay.
Stand With Dignity tried bringing its members to the homeless shelter’s clinic. But after long hours waiting outside in the winter cold to meet with a judge, they saw that the event wasn’t equipped to handle an influx.
Becnel realized he had an opportunity to use his organizing skills to meet a need in the community – and potentially expand Stand With Dignity’s ties with local residents – by working with the prosecutor’s office and the court to hold their own warrant clinic.
When Becnel approached the municipal court to see whether people could solve their warrant issues, he found an opportunity for both sides to benefit.
“What the judges were telling us was, ‘People don’t come to court,’” he says. “And we said, ‘We can get the people to come, if we can ensure them that these warrants will be released.’”
The first warrant clinic was held in 2017, and the response was overwhelming. About 1,300 people showed up. Waiting rooms overflowed, and judges worked past midnight to meet with as many people as possible. In the end, about 600 people were able to regain their driver’s licenses.
Patricia Anderson, 66, lives with breast cancer and diabetes, and she feared she’d be pulled over and arrested on the way to medical appointments. Anderson had about $6,000 in back fees reduced to a manageable amount. She now has her license again.
Alexis Smith, 28, was a college student at Xavier University when she was ticketed for failing to wear a seat belt. She didn’t pay the fee and missed the court date because of her busy schedule of work and classes, and the fines compounded to hundreds of dollars. She eventually lost her license.
“I had this ticket over my head for a really long time,” she says. “I know I should be able to afford a ticket, but they grow so fast.” Smith, who now works in real estate, was also able to get her license restored at the first warrant clinic.
Stand With Dignity held a second warrant clinic in September 2017. That time, they issued numbers in advance to cut down on huge wait times. Still, people heard about the event and showed up without signing up.
About 1,500 people were able to get relief through the two clinics. Organizers estimate that some $2 million in fines were waived—but that the city also saved about $1 million in administrative costs by clearing a backlog of old cases.
Advocates argue that it’s a net savings for the city, because the outstanding fines were unlikely to ever be collected. “This is money you’re never going to see, because you’re trying to get it from poor people,” says Ashley Shelton, executive director for the Power Coalition, which replicated the warrant clinic project in Baton Rouge and hopes to expand it elsewhere in Louisiana and across the South.
For Becnel, the overwhelming demand for the clinics was a sign of how big the problem is in New Orleans.
“To other organizers who want to take this on, it’s a macro project,” he says. “The need is so large, be prepared for a flood of people.” But the project also represented a major opportunity to build and strengthen community relationships.
For now, organizers in New Orleans are taking a more piecemeal approach, using the knowledge and connections they’ve built to support community members with resolving their back fines one by one in court. Stand With Dignity community organizers Latoya Lewis and Alfred Marshall have taken over the effort, patiently shepherding community members through the often intricate process.
Ultimately, with millions across the country driving on suspended licenses, the scale of the issue will require more systemic solutions. In 2017, California passed a law that prohibits state courts from suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic fines.
In Ohio, where an estimated 800,000 people are driving with suspended licenses, legislation under consideration last year would offer a six-month amnesty window on back fees for suspended drivers.
The very practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines is beginning to come under legal scrutiny. Over the past two years, lawsuits challenging the practice were filed in North Carolina, Montana, Michigan, Virginia, and Tennessee.
In July 2018, a federal judge ruled on the Tennessee lawsuit, finding that revoking driver’s licenses from low-income people for unpaid criminal court fines is unconstitutional. The state is in the process of reinstating suspended licenses.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote in the ruling: “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.”
Skeptics argue that the threat of license suspension is a powerful motivation to pay off fines and are dubious that the lawsuits will effect a change in other states. They argue that if the government isn’t constitutionally allowed to revoke a license over an unpaid fine, there’d soon be few circumstances in which the government could revoke a permit or license.
For those who get trapped in the cycle of unpaid fines and suspended driver’s licenses, relief seems most likely to come from state legislatures.
Mayes, the plumber, said that getting a fresh start has been a blessing for his family.
“I can do anything, I can apply for any job,” he says. “Not having a driver’s license, you’re kind of bound to certain things you can do. It’s so many different things, and now the door opens.”
This article was originally published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. It has been republished here with permission.