Thousands of New Mexicans will have their driver’s licenses reinstated under a new law that prevents the state Motor Vehicle Division from suspending the licenses of people who fail to appear in court, or don’t pay speeding tickets or other fines.
State officials confirmed Wednesday about 308,000 licenses that are currently suspended will be affected, and MVD staff are being trained on the new requirements.
“There is a fair amount of system reconfiguration that needs to be done, but we expect to be able to have those suspensions removed by September,” said Charlie Moore, a spokesman for the Taxation and Revenue Department, which oversees the MVD.
The underlying citations that led to the suspensions will still be reflected on driver records, Moore said.
State court officials say the new law that takes effect next week may lead more people to skip out on court hearings or ignore fines, but advocates see it as a positive change.
Monica Ault, state director with the advocacy group Fines & Fees Justice Center, told Albuquerque television station KRQE that suspensions can have a big impact on New Mexicans who rely on driving to get to work or school.
“What these types of license suspensions do is they force an impossible choice: You stop driving and you lose access to work and basic necessities. Or you keep driving, you risk more fines and fees, arrest, and even incarceration,” Ault said.
Research by the center shows that license revocations seem to impact rural New Mexicans more. A survey of 511 residents revealed that those from rural and semi-rural areas were 31% more likely to have their license suspended due to court issues than those from urban areas.
Ault said part of the challenge is that rural residents might not always know they’ve been ordered to come to court because their physical address on their license is often different from their mailing address and they don’t receive a notice.
Lawmakers rewrote the rules related to license suspensions earlier this year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill March 15.
Barry Massey, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said 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.
“Bench warrants tend to drive people away from the courts,” he said. “Now, when a person fails to appear in court, the only option the court has is to issue a bench warrant.”
Ault argues New Mexico’s courts still have other tools to ensure compliance. She noted the new law doesn’t eliminate any debt from unpaid fines, so Ault said that could act as an incentive to comply and pay.