Soon, Maine will stop automatically suspending driver’s licenses as a penalty for failure to pay fines on most offenses unrelated to driving.  This is a big deal, especially for folks with no criminal history.  Why?

Imagine a man, 18 years old, just a pup.  No criminal history.  Let’s call him Gary.  He goes fishing but he does not first obtain a license.  Youthful ignorance, or laziness, or defiance to authority — you choose.  An eagle-eyed game warden spots him.  Busted.  At Gary’s court date, the judge orders a $100 fine due and payable to the State.

Gary does not pay the fine.  Too forgetful, or too broke, or too cocky — you choose.  The State suspends Gary’s driver’s license for failing to pay the fine and sends a letter to his last-known address to notify him, but Gary just moved and has not yet updated his address with the court or the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.  He’s clueless about the suspension.

Gary rolls through a stop sign.  Blue lights.  Busted.  But on top of a $146 ticket for the stop sign violation, he also owes $325 for driving with a suspended license.  Oh, and he has to pay a $50 fee to reinstate his license.

Now, at this point, no one is engraving the 2018 Citizen of the Year trophy with Gary’s name, but we’re not picturing him in orange just yet.  But wait.  To pay the fines, he needs to earn a paycheck.  He lives in a rural town without public transportation.  His job is 20 miles away.  Do you see it now?  He needs to drive to earn a paycheck, he needs to earn a paycheck to pay the fines, he needs to pay the fines to drive.  Fishing without a license — a minor offense, by most measures — can snowball into misdemeanor driving convictions, which can snowball into felony driving convictions that carry minimum mandatory prison terms.  Before long, Gary could find himself behind bars, and it all started because he fished without a license.

(Let’s pause here for a moment and remind Gary that he ought to have obtained a fishing license in the first place, he ought to have paid his fine in the first place, he ought to have stopped at the stop sign in the first place, he ought to have updated his address with the court and the BMV in the first place, and he ought to have known that the State would suspend his license if he failed to pay the fine.  In my past life as an assistant district attorney, I have said all these things, with feeling, and I was right.  Nonetheless.)

Maine legislators led by Rep. Matt Moonen of Portland recognized this pattern and have voted to end these automatic suspensions for failure to pay fines for most offenses unrelated to driving until October 2021.  Check out the full text of LD 1190 here.  The changes take effect 90 days after the close of the special session, which began on June 19 and continues as of the publication of this post.

A couple words to the wise: Even when the law takes effect, failure to pay a fine still carries significant potential consequences — suspension of hunting and fishing licenses, suspension of professional licenses, contempt charges carrying additional fines of up to $500, and arrest.  Also, if you’re not sure if your license is suspended, it’s easy to call the BMV at (207) 624-9000 to check your status.  Have your license number ready and they can look you up quick.

One final pro tip for Gary: When a court imposes a fine, the judge will mention steps you can take if you find yourself unable to pay your fine as ordered.  Depending on the nature of your fine and the court that imposed it, you probably have the option to go before the judge at a specified time and date to explain why you cannot pay the fine and request an extension.  If you have had a bad month and worry you can’t make a payment, it never hurts to call the court that imposed the fine and ask about the process for requesting an extension.  It just might save you a ride in a black-and-white.

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