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Traffic on Interstate 70 in the Colorado high country. (Provided by the Colorado State Patrol)

In her passionate defense of the right of working families to keep their drivers licenses in order to get to jobs and support each other, Rep. Leslie Herod says she now has backing from the Colorado State Patrol to end suspensions over unrelated court fees.

Colorado should join other states in stopping the practice of suspending tens of thousands of drivers licenses each year just because the driver failed to pay court fines or fees totally disconnected from driving offenses or serious crimes, argues Herod, D-Denver. The State Patrol says 90,000 licenses are suspended for these dubious reasons each year, Herod said, and that three-quarters of those people drive illegally anyway because they have to.

They inevitably get into more trouble and more debt, she added. “What we want to do is take away this cycle,” Herod said. 

The Colorado Sun invited Gov. Jared Polis and four state lawmakers to present their big ideas ahead of the 2021 legislative session during a virtual event on Feb. 11. Watch it here.

Herod presented the proposed policy change Thursday night during a Colorado Sun event featuring Gov. Jared Polis and four state lawmakers, as they each offered their “Big Ideas” to preview the 2021 legislative session resuming Tuesday. 

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, wants Colorado to stop suspending the licenses of people just because they can’t pay unrelated court fines (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Getting the State Patrol on board improves her chances, Herod said. “They are 100 percent behind it, in fact they came to me.”

As for objections that the policy change lets scofflaws off the hook too easily, Herod said, “We find it doesn’t decrease their willingness to pay, it increases their ability to pay.”

Herod promoted the license legislation in 2020, but it was one of many bills seeking systemic changes that got dropped during a shortened pandemic-related session that focused on deep concerns over the state budget. 

Hundreds of thousands of Colorado drivers’ licenses are suspended each year, and a significant number of those are due to failing to pay court fines and fees that may have nothing to do with driving offenses. The underlying offense might be parking tickets or a missed court date, child support payments or substance abuse cases. 

Suspending the license inevitably compounds the problems of low-income residents beyond the troubles that first brought them into court debt, social justice advocates say. Losing their license means they can’t legally drive to work, or to make other court dates or parole meetings, or do basic errands to support their families. 

Multiple states in recent years have dropped the practice, or seriously considered it with similar legislation. The efforts often are part of a larger social and economic justice movement that has advocated for “banning the box,” barring employers from asking about past criminal offenses on job or rent applications; changing most bail to non-cash for minor offenses; and removing the possibility of jailing people for unpaid court debt.

Colorado and some local governments have passed many of those measures. In many cases, the efforts have attracted a coalition of backers that ranges from liberal to conservative, with some business or libertarian-oriented advocates saying the government should remove obstacles to people getting back on their feet. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.