Nearly 100,000 people may keep their driver’s licenses in 2022 because of a new Colorado law

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An SUV drives down Washington Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Sept. 28, 2021.

Starting on New Year’s Day, tens of thousands of people who face legal trouble in Colorado will still be allowed to keep their driver’s licenses. A new law, which took effect Jan. 1, ends the state’s practice of revoking driver licenses for various reasons that have little to do with a person’s on-the-road driving skills.

“I am really excited about this bill because we will see an impact immediately,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, a sponsor of the law. “They will be able to get their license reinstated right away, and the policy of actually taking people’s driver’s license away will go away.”

The new law may affect nearly 100,000 cases annually, according to data from recent years. It forbids the state from revoking or denying licenses just because:

  • The person has been convicted of misusing a license, titles, permits, or license plates
  • The person has failed to register a car in Colorado.
  • The person missed a court appearance or failed to pay fees and fines related to traffic, municipal or transit-related violations.
  • Or the person has been convicted of offenses such as underage possession of alcohol; criminal mischief theft; or providing alcohol to a minor.

People can still lose their licenses if they accumulate too many points for driving infractions.

With the change, Colorado joins more than 20 other states that are moving away from using driving restrictions to punish people for unpaid fees and other non-driving related concerns, according to the Fines & Fees Justice Center.

In Colorado, the bill passed with bipartisan support. In fact, Herod said the idea was proposed by both the Colorado State Patrol and by members of the criminal justice reform group JustUs.

“It’s a cycle, a lot of times,” said Cpt. Michael Honn, legislative liaison for CSP. “Oftentimes, you see folks that you stop on a traffic contact — you realize that they have many, many stacked-up violations and restraints on their driver’s license.”

The patrol wanted to find ways that people could “stay on their feet, getting to work and being a good contributor to society,” Honn added. A central argument behind the bill is that being able to drive is crucial to many jobs, so losing a license can start a downward spiral..

Rep. Matt Gray, a former prosecutor who cosponsored the bill, said that courts have been wasting countless hours dealing with people’s revoked licenses.

“I spent hours and hours and hours doing that while I had DUI cases and domestic violence cases that I wasn’t working on,” said Gray, a Democrat. “Instead, I was working on going through someone’s DMV history with them and seeing if they could pay their fines or not.”

Financial and legal effects

For some, though, questions remain about what happens next.

First, there’s the financial effect. The state Department of Revenue stands to lose about $3.6 million per year in revenues that it had been collecting from fees on driver’s license reinstatements and outstanding judgments. 

The law tries to counteract that with a new $25 fee on people who reinstate their licenses after a DUI. It also allows for millions of dollars to be transferred from the state’s cannabis tax fund to the Department of Revenue.

But beyond the question of money, Gray said, there’s the question of behavior.

Some local governments and judges fear that people won’t attend municipal court without the threat of a license revocation.

“You should ultimately have to go to court and settle the case,” said Meghan Dollar, legislative advocacy manager for Colorado Municipal League.

But CML, which represents local groups, ultimately took a neutral stance on the bill after the sponsors agreed to work on new ways to get people to court. The law created a group of advocates and state agencies, including the Colorado State Patrol and the American Civil Liberties Union, to work on the issue.

The group is “really focusing on that incentive to get to court and still hold you accountable for your driving actions,” Honn said.

Will people still pay their tickets?

Reformers say that there’s little to fear, arguing that the punitive approach wasn’t accomplishing much anyway.

“We don’t see this as being a major issue. In states that have gotten rid of the issue in this law, they haven’t found this to have a huge impact on failure to appear,” Herod said.

In states that have removed the threat of license revocation, there’s little or no evidence that people are less willing to pay fees or attend court, said Priya Sarathy Jones, policy director for the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center. 

In Idaho, for example, “there has been no clear evidence that the change has affected collection rates on infraction cases,” according to a state report. And in California, the payment of non-delinquent debt actually increased after the change; Jones argues that debtors are better able to pay if they can keep driving to work.

But Gray, the cosponsor, worries that people will blow off speeding tickets if they think they won’t lose their license. He wants to reinforce the threat of financial penalties, suggesting that the state could give local courts the power to garnish people’s wages — a power that only state courts hold now.

“That creates a disincentive to do it in the first place,” he said. (Speeding tickets will still come with other consequences when the new law is in effect: They put points on a person’s license, which leads to higher insurance rates and can still add up to revocation; local courts can also enlist collections agencies to pursue people’s unpaid fees and tickets.)

Jones and Herod said that the state should simply make it easier to attend court. Jones suggested that states offer virtual hearings and lower financial penalties for some cases. Herod said that providing more reminders by text or email could get people into the courtroom.

Dollar, of CML, suggested that the state could provide money for municipal courts to install those text-message notification systems. In the meantime, she said, everyone will have to wait and see what effects the new law will have.