Laverit Burks’ money problems started with a speeding ticket back in 2009. When he failed to pay for the ticket, his license was suspended. Then he got more tickets, and the fees only piled up — he now owes $1,535.10 to a collection agency.
Burks’ story is a familiar one in Miami-Dade County, where 29 percent of drivers currently have suspended licenses. That’s approximately 550,000 drivers, according to the county clerk of courts — enough to fill up the Miami Dolphins’ stadium seven times.
The failure to pay fees accounted for 77 percent of all license suspensions in Florida between 2012 and 2015, according to an analysis of DHSMV data. This included traffic tickets, court costs, and child support payments. The remaining 23 percent is made up of about 100 other sanctions that can trigger a license suspension, from too many traffic violations to failure to appear in court. Miami-Dade has the highest total number of license suspensions per capita of any county in the state, the Herald analysis shows.
If the fees aren’t paid after 90 days, the clerk of courts will send the case to one of four private collection agencies under contract to the county: Alliance One, Penn Credit, Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson LLP and Law Enforcement Solutions. The agencies add a 40 percent collection fee to the amount owed, as authorized by the state Legislature. In 2014, the agencies collected nearly $19 million for the county clerk and an additional $7.5 million in fees, according to an analysis provided to the Herald by the clerk’s office.
The money is a boon to the cash-strapped office, said Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s clerk of courts. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to recover,” he said.
Ruvin is up against a shrinking budget allocated by the Florida Legislature, and traffic tickets as well as court costs help support budgets. The money is placed into statewide trusts distributed among a number of different courts.
But Michael Herald, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty in California and co-author of a recent report that found 4 million people in the western state had suspended licenses due to traffic fines and fees, said supporting court budgets this way puts an unfair burden on many.
“We should not shift those costs to people who really cannot afford to pay them, Herald said. “It’s just a recipe for keeping people in permanent poverty.”