(NewsNation) — A new law from the state of New Mexico that went into effect in mid-June is making it so the state’s residents no longer can lose their driver’s licenses for not paying fees or failing to appear in court.
The reform is expected to impact thousands of New Mexicans who will see their driver’s licenses restored.
In passing the new law, New Mexico joined a broad bipartisan group of states starting to curb license suspensions for debt-based reasons. Under the new law, the state can still suspend driver’s licenses for traffic-related violations like driving under the influence.
In addition to suspensions for failing to appear in court, there were a wide range of fees and fines levied on New Mexicans that could lead to suspensions, such as speeding tickets to court-related expenses like a post-conviction fee.
Monica Ault, the New Mexico director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, was one of the advocates who lobbied the legislature to change the law around suspensions.
She said her organization surveyed New Mexicans and found that many of them were giving up basic necessities in order to pay court-related debts.
“This ranged from paying rent, car payments, to paying baby formula, food… All of these things just to pay the court back,” she said.
Ault, who previously worked as a public defender, said that things often got worse for her clients when their licenses were suspended. New Mexico is a largely rural state with little public transportation.
“Most people need their license to do what? To drive to work. Or to take their children to daycare or school,” she said. “And if you can’t do that you’re really faced with a really impossible choice which is keep driving and risk driving on a suspended license charge and more, or stop driving and you lose access to all of these things.”
The new reform, which had bipartisan support in the New Mexico legislature, will restore over 300,000 licenses to New Mexicans. The Motor Vehicle Division is handling the restoration of the licenses, which will come at no fee. The state plans to complete these restorations by September.
While support for the reform was broad and bipartisan in state politics, there are critics of the reform as well.
Barry Massey, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts, argued removing suspensions also removes a tool to assure that people show up to court.
“More drivers respond to the court when they are notified of the potential license suspension than the notice that a bench warrant has been issued,” he told the local press. “Bench warrants tend to drive people away from the courts. Now, when a person fails to appear in court, the only option the court has is to issue a bench warrant.”
Ault wasn’t convinced by the argument. She said the court often issued bench warrants alongside license suspensions, and it has other options to compel people to appear in court.
“They can garnish tax returns, for example, they can garnish wages,” she said, offering a couple of examples.
For now, her organization is working to spread the word about the reform to make sure drivers can restore their driving privileges. New Mexicans can check the status of their license on the Motor Vehicle Division website, but some residents may not know about the new law.