KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: Suspended License Epidemic

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"But it's just simple tickets, you know?  Parking tickets can make you lose your license," said Daniel Lawrence who's had a suspended license for more than a decade.

He and others call the trend out of control, a national epidemic with Kansas at the front of the pack.

You might be surprised how easily it could happen to you, a simple parking ticket, a moving violation,a missed deadline and the fines and fees start piling up.

"They sent me a letter in the mail saying that my license was suspended.  I paid that fine but they never reinstated it.  So then I got pulled over again," Daniel said.

He thought that after paying his fine he was good to drive again.  Instead, he got a ticket for driving on a suspended license.  A decade later he still can't afford to pay that fine or the court fees, late fees, and reinstatement fees that followed, compounding each other over the years.

"Me and my wife just filed bankruptcy," Daniel said.  "So how can I pay $2000 if I can't even pay all my other bills?  Let alone get my driver's license back.  It just...it feels like it's never going to end."

"I've seen people with more than $10,000 in fines accumulated," said Sedgwick County District Court Judge Phil Journey.  He spent five years running the county's traffic court.  "I had one lady paid more than $17,000 to get her privileges restored because, you know, at $2500 a whack, it starts adding up pretty quick."

Journey has heard hundreds of stories like Daniel's.  Journey says the spiral into traffic court debt often starts with a simple mistake, a missed deadline, a wrong address or a lack of funds to pay the original ticket. 

"Then trying to get things straightened out is difficult.  It takes specific knowledge that many people simply don't have and don't know how to find out," Journey said.

As of June this year, Daniel was one of more than 137,000 Kansans with suspended licenses, about half of them right here in Sedgwick County.  That's about 5% of all Kansas drivers based on a study by Insurify Insights, that studies trends in the insurance industry.  That study put Kansas as the fifth worst state in the country for suspended licenses, behind North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Nebraska.

"This safety issue is, if someone knows they're going to jail for driving to work, do they really need to buy insurance?" Phil Journey asks.  

He says, in his experience, many on suspended drivers licenses continue driving because they feel they have no other choice in order to get to work.  Daniel now relies on his wife to drive him to work.  When he's home alone with the kids he just prays nothing happens.

"Cause if I drive, I get pulled over, I end up going to jail," Daniel said.  "I can't go to jail with my two kids in the car."

"They have no way to get to work, or pick up their kids, or go to the doctors, or legally drive anywhere," said Dr. Walt Chappell.

While researching racial profiling concerns in Wichita, Chappell stumbled across the number of suspended licenses in Sedgwick County years ago.  He says state law is a big part of the problem, a part he's been working to change.

"There's a whole tangled web of procedures the bureaucrats have figured out to keep people tied up in knots for years," Chappell said.  "And if you can't get through all that maze, you never get a chance to drive again."

Nationwide, states are starting to change that.  Virginia just outlawed suspending drivers licenses for unpaid fees and fines.  While Ohio is in the middle of a statewide amnesty program that gets rid of reinstatement fees for those who can't afford them.

"In California there was about $60 million they collected by going through an amnesty program," Chappell said.

Since 2010 Chappell has been trying to get similar legislation passed in Kansas, setting up an amnesty program, allowing folks to work off their original fines through charity work or payment plans, while getting rid of some of those late fees.

But, he says, court clerks have blocked his efforts so far.

"They want to collect money," Chappell explained.  "The court clerks come and say, 'That's our money.  It's right there in the legislation.'"

In the 2020 Wichita budget the municipal court gets $7.8 million from the city's general fund.  The city expects fines and fees paid to the court, including traffic violations, to put more than $8.1 million back into that general fund.  That's a net profit for Wichita, more for some small towns.

"There's a recent article in governing magazine that talks about little bitty towns that basically run their town on fines and court costs," Journey said.  He and others believe government may be losing more money than they make by suspending licenses to force payment of fines and fees.  "Because these people can't get a job because they can't get to work, the state expends money taking care of their children and their families and support services because they can't get on their own two feet because they can't get to work."

Chappell may get some help this next year, in his push to changed Kansas' rules on suspending licenses for unpaid fees and fines.  A state subcommittee on criminal justice reform is also making suspended licenses a priority for the upcoming session.

So what can you do in the meantime? When you get a ticket, wait a day for the officer to file the paperwork and then call the court. That simple contact can make a big difference in the amount of time you have to pay your fines, avoiding those late fees and worse.

Daniel says he feels like the extra fines and fees are a form of double jeopardy, paying more than once for the same mistake.

"The reinstatement fees?  There shouldn't be a reinstatement fee.  You already gave me my fine.  My license is suspended.  That should be gone.  Why do we need to pay you even more?  That's another fine on top of a fine," Daniel said.

Which leaves Daniel still out in the slow lane with no hope of getting his license back this year.

"It frustrates me," he said quietly.  "It irritates me and it frustrates me."

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