Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi Cliff Johnson. Credit: University of Mississippi

Tens of thousands of Mississippi drivers will be allowed back on the road in 2018.

In January, licenses suspended solely for failing to pay fines or fees will be reinstated after a reversal in the Department of Public Safety’s policy. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law announced the change Tuesday.

“Being poor in Mississippi is hard enough without having your license suspended just because you can’t afford to pay off outstanding fines,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “We don’t have subways or other reliable public transportation in Mississippi, and a suspended license makes it impossible to legally drive to job interviews, take loved ones to the hospital, pick your kids up from school, or even go to church.”

Johnson told Mississippi Today that, along with SPLC, the MacArthur Justice Center began talks with DPS at the beginning of the year, after the groups observed that there was no process being used to determine whether defendants failing to pay was willful or out of poverty.

“I had been told by judges in Mississippi that they often wound up imposing fines on the same people time after time because they would get stopped for driving with suspended licenses,” Johnson said. “Its a fiction to think people in that situation are never going to drive.”

“We’re setting people up to be driven deeper into debt,” he added.

Under the new procedures, DPS will also waive its $100 reinstatement fee, will notify  drivers that their licenses are no longer suspended and will instruct motorists how to reinstate them.

“We will continue to suspend licenses for other reasons allowed under Mississippi law, and we certainly take it seriously when people drive with suspended licenses,” said Marshall Fisher, Director of DPS. “The reinstatement of these licenses will not relieve the drivers of the legal obligation to pay the fines, fees, or assessments.”

Other reasons for license suspensions include finding a driver in contempt for failure to pay a fine and failing to respond to a traffic summons or citation.

SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center contend that Mississippi courts have not been following the law regarding collection of fines and fees, and both entities have been pursuing litigation throughout Mississippi addressing the rights of indigent defendants, according to a joint press release.

“Poverty is not a traffic crime,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “There is a growing recognition across the country that people should not face additional punishment just because of their poverty.”

According to the DPS, over 100,000 licenses were suspended in-part from failing to pay fines; licenses suspended for other reasons, however, will not be reinstated. Johnson advised that suspended drivers wait until they receive a letter from DPS to see how the policy affects them, or to call 601-987-1224 for more information.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.

5 replies on “Department of Public Safety to reinstate tens of thousands driver’s licenses”

  1. Then why have fines? Why have traffic laws?
    I have had my license suspended for this very reason. Not the end of the world.
    I was contesting a speeding ticket, court was rescheduled by me, then rescheduled by them. I missed the next court date. The county, which was a hundred miles away, offered me to attend a class, and they would adjust the fine or the verdict, I forget which- then another oops.
    Paid the fine and the fee. It hurt and hurt bad. The only collateral government has is the license.
    This is the wrong solution.
    Partial payments could work here.
    That last section is confusing, though.
    “Other reasons for license suspensions include finding a driver in contempt for failure to pay a fine…”

    1. The AP version of this story HHS’s been updated to include that drivers are still on the hook to pay fines via a payment plan. A driver would have to show proof of income to a judge in order to move forward.

  2. Well, you’ve got some 15 year old boy in rural Mississippi. The schools kinda suck and his family is poor because it’s the poorest state in the country. He goes to a school where they hit him with a wooden paddle when he misbehaves, which he tends to do quite a bit of. He finally graduates, gets a job, and spends $1000 on a beat up 1995 Ford Ranger, gets it licensed and insured, and he’s got his own little franchise up and running. Then he gets pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign and misses his court date. The fine is only $100 but the assessment is $130, so they issue a warrant for his failure to appear and suspend his license. He continues driving his truck and gets pulled over again, so they impound his truck and take him to jail. The bail is $200 cash only and it’s another $200 to get his truck out of impound. He can’t post his bond, so he sits in jail for a month and loses his job. When he finally gets out of jail, he realizes that he is homeless, he can’t get his truck back, and the hardcore Christian conservative mayor if his town was actually spending his money at a gay sex shop in Toronto while he was driven into abject poverty. So, all things considered, I think this is a bit of public policy that is long overdue for some reconsideration.

  3. What if you never had license and you got fines is the fines going to be gone so you can get license

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