New Kansas law helps low-income drivers

Traffic tickets for low-income drivers can snowball into thousands of dollars of debt and revoked licenses. A new law aims to reduce fines and fees to help get them reinstated.



May 17, 2024 - 2:28 PM

The Kansas Department of Revenue can suspend a driver's license for unpaid traffic tickets. It can be financially difficult for low-income drivers to get their license reinstated. Photo by Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Frank Meade originally lost his driver’s license nearly 40 years ago.

When he was young, Meade was fined for driving drunk. But he couldn’t afford the cost and the state suspended his license.

That didn’t stop him from using his vehicle for the many years following, and he wound up racking up a load of debt from traffic violation fines and court fees. He would need to pay those if he ever hoped to have a legal driver’s license again.

“I just continued driving and continued driving and they just stacked up,” Meade told the Kansas News Service. “I had more fines and fees than I could even begin to deal with.”

It’s a cycle many people get stuck in. They lose their license and can’t afford to pay the fines to get it reinstated. That means they drive illegally to places like work or risk losing their jobs and livelihoods. But that might become less common under a new law.

Meade, a 62-year-old Topeka resident, is now retired and lives on a fixed income. He said at one point his debt was up to $3,000 — an amount he would never be able to cover.

Kansas Legal Services, a nonprofit law group serving low-income clients, helped Meade resolve his remaining traffic violations and the state fees required to reinstate a driver’s license.

Finally, for the first time in decades, Meade is driving with a legal license. He can now easily travel to important meetings with his probation officer and to Alcoholics Anonymous to help him remain sober. Otherwise, he would have had to spend hours using public transportation each day.

“It’s already made my life so much simpler,” Meade said.

Kansas Legal Services plans to help more low-income Kansans get similar help reducing fines, resolving court cases and getting their driver’s licenses back in good standing.

The new law may also provide relief by consolidating and reducing fines and fees drivers need to pay to get their license reinstated.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who signed the bill into law on Friday, said in a news release that it’s a necessary reform to help people keep their jobs and pay off their fines. She said it also allows courts to restrict, rather than suspend, licenses so drivers can still travel to school, work and other essential activities.

“This bill puts a stop to the cycle of hardship that Kansans face when their drivers license is suspended,” Kelly said in the news release.

Currently, the state charges a driver a $100 license reinstatement fee for each ticket they failed to pay. That adds more financial penalties on drivers who are already unable to pay their fine. To provide financial relief in those cases, the law reduces the reinstatement fees to only one $100 charge, regardless of the number of tickets.

The law also allows a judge to determine when to reinstate a license and reduce fines and fees. That means the court could allow a driver back onto the road before they finish paying off what they owe. The court will also continue to have the authority to waive those fines and fees.

The Kansas Legislature passed the new law with broad bipartisan support.

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