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A Kansas City group is paying off traffic fines to help drivers get their licenses back

Teresa, who lives in Independence, lost her drivers' license after racking up a dozen outstanding tickets over a decade. KCUR isn't using her last name because she's looking for a job and most employers require a drivers' license.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Teresa, who lives in Independence, lost her drivers' license after racking up a dozen outstanding tickets over a decade. KCUR isn't using her last name because she's looking for a job and most employers require a drivers' license.

Project GreenLight, which launched Wednesday, aims to combat "driving while poor" by helping people pay off fines accumulated through traffic violations and providing lawyers to help get drivers’ licenses reinstated.

Ten years ago, Teresa got a speeding ticket while driving in the Kansas City area. A single mother of two with a low-income job, she felt she had two choices: feed her kids or pay the fine.

She fed her kids.

Now, that single ticket has snowballed into a list of a dozen citations ranging from improper registration tags to driving without insurance. Teresa lost her driver’s license, spent time in jail and got fired from her job. She has no idea how much all those fines will cost.

“One thing leads to another and there’s no getting out of it once you’re in it,” she said. “You’re not financially able to get out of it.”

Teresa, 50, is one of millions of people across the country — and thousands in Kansas City — who have lost their driving privileges because of a series of traffic tickets they can’t afford to pay. KCUR is not using Teresa’s last name because she is still looking for a job and doesn’t want potential employers to disqualify her based on her ticket history.

On March 1st, the Kansas City Community Bail Fund launched Project GreenLight, which aims to help pay off fines and provide lawyers to get drivers’ licenses reinstated.

Chloe Cooper, the bail fund’s co-founder and executive director, said the organization is trying to raise awareness about what it believes to be a crisis. Driving is a luxury some people can’t afford and being criminalized for that is unfair, she said.

“The racial and socioeconomic inequalities are very rampant through this issue,” Cooper said. “We promise people all these dreams if you get a better job, if you can go to school, if you can do this. And then it's like, how do you get there, though?”

The issue, often called “driving while poor,” came to light in 2013 after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report found racially discriminatory ticketing of Black residents in the suburban St. Louis area were based, in part, on the city’s dependence on the criminal justice system to raise revenue through fines.

States suspending millions of adult drivers' privileges for failure to pay traffic tickets and other problems not related to how they drive is a recent phenomenon, according to a 2020 article published in the Duke Law Journal.

“What began as a system for collecting court debt may instead reinforce poverty,” the article says.

Last year 2,204 driving while suspended charges and 4,481 driving without insurance charges were filed in Kansas City, according to the Kansas City Municipal Court. Those numbers don’t include people who have been driving without a license for longer than a year.

Kansas and Missouri suspend or revoke driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees or appear in court because of a traffic infraction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group that tracks state policies.

At least 22 states have passed legislation to curb debt-based driving restrictions since 2016, according to Free to Drive, a group working to end debt-based license restrictions.

To be eligible for assistance through Project GreenLight, applicants must live in either Jackson or Wyandotte counties and have no driving while intoxicated or reckless driving citations. Applicants can qualify based on income or on enrollment in a government assistance program like TANF, WIC, SNAP, Section 8, Social Security or Medicaid.

In addition to paying for drivers’ license reinstatement fees in Missouri and Kansas, Project GreenLight will help with license plate renewals, insurance premiums and license renewal or replacement vehicle registrations for cars costing less than $20,000. They will also help with minor vehicle repairs like burnt-out lights or turn signals.

Teresa keeps a list of her tickets in a spiral notebook . She has nine in Kansas City and another two or three in Independence, where she lives. None of the tickets are for DWI or reckless driving, so she’s hopeful Project GreenLight will help her.

She’s tried taking the public buses, but they stop running at 5 p.m. in Independence. She worked at retail stores in Grandview as an assistant manager, closing at 8 p.m. and driving home around 9 p.m. after she deposited the day’s receipts. That’s where most of her tickets came from, she said.

In 2021, she was stopped for improper plates while driving home from her job at a Dollar Tree. She was held in jails in Kansas City and Independence for nine days, so she was fired from her job — even though her manager knew what had happened to her. She’s now on unemployment because most jobs require a drivers’ license. She’s worried because her unemployment will run out soon.

“I have an education. I want better jobs. I want to do better. And I have the desire to not sit here and do nothing,” she said. “But if you don’t have a driver’s license, how are you supposed to maintain your life?”

If she can win reinstatement of her license, she hopes to soon be able to visit her now-adult daughters in Leavenworth and St. Louis, along with her five granddaughters.

“I could get on with a normal life, go get a better job and go see my kids,” she said, “and not be looking over my back all the time.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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