Apr. 15—Arrests for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle are expected to be greatly reduced in the coming months, due to the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act taking effect on March 31. This new state law stops the suspension of driver’s licenses over nonpayment of traffic tickets.

Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti noted that, since the law is retroactive, all licenses suspended for traffic-fine nonpayment will be reinstated.

Data shared by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office shows deputies pulled over between 700 and 900 drivers each year from 2015 through 2019, and 422 drivers in 2020, for unlicensed operation. A New York driver’s license can be suspended for various reasons, such as lapsed motor vehicle insurance, a lack of payment of child support, as well as non-payment of traffic ticket fines. The new law applies to the latter category only.

Aggravated Unlicensed Operation (AUO) is a misdemeanor offense in New York, meaning it’s a crime punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine between $200 and $500. First-degree AUO, a felony offense, is punishable by up to 4 years in jail and/or a fine up to $5,000.

According to the Free to Drive Coalition, a nationwide organization opposed to the suspension of driver’s licenses for “unpaid court debt,” 86% of Americans drive to work.

“Without a license, you can’t take your children to school, buy groceries, or get the healthcare you need,” the coalition says on its website. “Many people have no choice but to continue driving — meaning they risk more fines and fees, a criminal conviction, and incarceration.”

Local attorney Arthur Pressman, who often defends people charged with AUO, said the intent of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act is to decriminalize the non-payment of what the coalition calls court debt.

“I think that’s what the legislature was looking for was to not criminalize that behavior,” Pressman said. “I think the feeling is that a large part of the population, or a portion of the population, that couldn’t afford it wouldn’t be subject to criminal charges anymore.”

According to Filicetti, the new law is structured to get traffic-court debtors into payment plans. “If you don’t do the payment plan, they do a civil judgment on you,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a big reduction (in AUO arrests), because they’re also reinstating people’s driver’s licenses that were currently suspended for not paying fines.”

The fine that’s levied for AUO by local courts goes to the state, according to Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman. However, he said, it has been common practice to offer those who come to court the chance to pay off their existing fines in exchange for disposal of the misdemeanor charge.

“The suspension of the license was a very strong incentive for people to actually go clear their outstanding tickets,” Seaman said. “In town courts, we would tell the person who came in with that charge … if you show me you’ve cleared those tickets, we’ll just give you another ticket, you won’t have a misdemeanor charge.”

By that, he means AUO would be reduced to a parking violation or another lower level offense. That results in a fine, too, but who collects the money depends on the charge. For example, if AUO is reduced to speeding, the state gets most of the fine money, while if it’s reduced to a parking ticket then the charging local municipality gets the money.

When someone charged with AUO doesn’t agree to pay off their traffic court debt, Seaman said, the misdemeanor charge normally still is pleaded down but in the resulting settlement the fine will be higher.

Seaman said many drivers who have a suspended license have “scoffs,” meaning they did not appear in court to pay or contest tickets.

“If someone came in with several scoffs, if they wanted to clear them, I might give them a parking ticket,” he said. “If they said, ‘No, it’s just too much, I just won’t do it. What can you give me if I don’t do this?’ I might give them a ticket called a facilitating AUO. … (A traffic offense) with a higher fine. Most of that would go to the state.”

In response to questions about the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles said via email that some provisions of the law — including elimination of a $70 license suspension termination fee — won’t take effect until the end of June.

Driving- and traffic law-related infractions that are not covered by the reform act include failure to appear in court to answer a traffic ticket, failure to pay a driver responsibility assessment, failure to maintain auto insurance, impaired driving, speeding in a work zone, writing a bad check for ticket payment and failure to file an accident report, the DMV spokesperson said.

In New York, a person can also see their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay taxes, probationary violations and non-payment of child support.