Milwaukee's poor hit hard by suspended licenses

Posted at 9:48 PM, Jul 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-13 16:36:00-04

More than $1 million. That's what people driving on a suspended license owe the city of Milwaukee, for just 2017. 

Our first story on reckless driving last November looked at the problem on the street. Now the I-Team is taking a look at the numbers, and who's racking up all these fines. 

One state senator called some of these suspensions a "debtor's prison" and told us this approach is not making Milwaukee streets any safer. 

Law enforcement is trying to get a handle on reckless drivers. A three agency task force is on city streets and the interstates.  

Milwaukee County Sheriff, Richard Schmidt explained, "we want to stop the catastrophic injuries that are happening."  

MCSO is teaming up with MPD, adding city streets to its patrol.  

"We have people going 30, 40, 50 miles an hour over the speed limit, weaving back and forth," the sheriff said.

Drivers are getting tickets, but are they paying what they owe?  The I-Team took a look at the numbers going back almost 4 years.  

The bill owed to the city for speeding is more than $1.3 million.  For running a red light the balance for 2017 is almost $79,000. But the highest dollar amount is for driving on a suspended license. Unpaid citations total $3.4 million. 

Da'ron Washington is part of that number.  The Milwaukee man drove on a suspended license. A single father of three, one of his daughters has type 1 diabetes. Washington's car gets his daughter to doctor's appointments, the kids to daycare and him to work.   But two nonmoving violations turned into more than $200 in tickets.

Washington told us he was "trying to do the right thing and go to court, and trying to pay my tickets."

He fell behind on payments so his license was suspended.  

"I never had a speeding ticket or no reckless driving ticket," Washington said.

Two more citations for an unregistered vehicle and driving suspended bumped his total owed to almost $450.

It's why most people in Wisconsin end up with a suspended license.  Last year, almost 56 percent or more than 200,000 suspensions were the result of failure to pay traffic tickets on time.

"Sometimes they'll get pulled over and get multiple tickets in one stop," attorney Molly Gena told us.

She works for Legal Action of Wisconsin which partners with the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability.  A program that helps low-income Milwaukee residents get their driving privileges back.

Gena said her clients are not dangerous drivers, "suspending people's licenses isn't what's going to make them pay if they just don't have it."  

Municipal court offers some options for drivers, like community service or payment plans, but Gena told us that's not always laid out for people.

"Sometimes even when you do go to court they're not telling you of those options. They're just basically saying you need to pay this," Gena said. 

Sen. Lena Taylor said she hears from her constituents all the time on this issue.  

"I see a license as a connection to work, and I don't want to stop that." Taylor called suspending licenses for some unpaid tickets a "revenue generator," and believes, in the end, it can throw people deeper into poverty.  "I don't think just creating more suspensions is gonna get us to a solution.  There has to be some consequences, but I would like the consequences that help us get solutions."

Washington is still paying off his tickets, but the recovery program was able to get his license back.  He told us it's a privilege to be able to drive, "it's just actually a blessing to really have my license back."  

There is also the issue of a 70 percent, or higher "no show" rate for traffic court.  Many people don't realize if you show up there are options to help get their license back. 

According to Milwaukee Municipal Court, it works with people to keep their license. Judges offer installment plans for as little as $20 a month. The Chief Court Administrator told us "no one has to have their license suspended while making payments on their case."  

"You can come to Court during Walk-In hours, 5 days a week to see a Judge about outstanding warrants, driver's license suspensions and vehicle registration denials," said Milwaukee Municipal Court.

The law recently changed when it comes to suspensions.  Wisconsin used to require a 2 year license suspension for many unpaid traffic tickets.  In 2016 that was dropped to one year.  Senator Taylor told us she's looking at some creative solutions and possible legislation that would eliminate suspensions for some unpaid traffic violations.

For help to get your driver's license back: