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Senate tackles 'cruel, relentless' driver's license suspensions

The Florida Senate began a lengthy review Wednesday of an epidemic in Florida in which more than 1.5 million people have had their driver's licenses suspended for non-driving-related infractions.

Drivers didn't pay traffic fines. They fell behind on child support payments. They said they would go to traffic school and didn't.

In Florida, your license can be suspended for truancy, graffiti, a drug offense or underage tobacco use, and for many drivers, the suspension is just the start of their problems. The cost of a license reinstatement is $60, and a collection agency can charge a fee of up to 40 percent to get that fee. Courts can impose a $25 delinquency fee if a driver fails to show up in court, and there's an $18 fee for failure to complete traffic school.

A report last month by The Miami Herald said 29 percent of all drivers in the county had their licenses suspended, many of them the working poor who can't pay the high fees to get reinstated.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, invited public defenders and court clerks to testify on a problem he called "cruel and relentless" and to suggest solutions.

"The result of this has been a crushing cycle of debt for many low-level offenders," said Nancy Daniels, the long-time public defender for the Tallahassee judicial circuit. She said license suspensions account for nearly half of all misdemeanor cases in her office.

Between 1996 and 2010, Daniels said, the Legislature added 20 more instances in which a person's license can be suspended. She suggested that the law be changed so that driver's licenses can be suspended only for driving-related infractions that endanger public safety, and that the state create a new class of licenses so people can legally drive to and from work.

Brandes said a solution will be difficult, in part because the high fees have become a necessary component of budgets for clerks and the courts. "This has festered for more than 20 years," Brandes said.