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New York: Lawsuit Filed Over Red Light Camera Debt Trap
Low-income motorists say Suffolk County, New York red light camera registration suspensions punish them for being poor.

Suffolk County traffic agency
New York motorists who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets should not have their right to drive revoked on account of poverty, a federal lawsuit argues. Rosina Ciervo and Celena McDaniel had their vehicle registrations suspended by the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency without any consideration of their financial circumstances, and they want to end this practice.

"The plaintiffs seek relief from the county's unconstitutional scheme that unfairly punishes them for being poor," attorney Scott Lockwood wrote on the motorists' behalf. "Paying off court debt is particularly hard for individuals living below the federal poverty threshold and subsisting on SSI."

Ciervo and McDaniel both live off of Social Security payments and food stamps. They could not afford to pay the red light camera tickets they received, and they were never offered a community service alternative. Ciervo says the $3165 in photo tickets were accumulated up by family members, not her, and she did not even know about them. McDaniel's family, likewise, racked up $4585 in photo tickets. On top of these amounts, the interest on their debt increases at an annual rate of nine percent.

Even though the state red light camera law only authorizes a $50 fine for each automated ticket, the county tacks on an extra $30 "administrative fee." The county also tacks on a host of other fees from $50 to $100 for failing to pay a fine on time or for filing a judgment.

"Needless to say, these fines, fees, penalties, costs, and interest on judgments add up rapidly, exposing an individual to increasing debt for these civil offenses," Lockwood wrote. "Research has consistently found that having the ability to operate a motor vehicle can be crucial to an individual's ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for oneself and one's family."

In May, a county hearing officer suspended the registrations of Ciervo and McDaniel, effectively ensuring that they would never be able to drive again given the mounting financial liabilities. The hearing officer was only authorized to collect money from defendants, not consider any alternative arrangements. Lockwood insisted that suspending registrations for reasons unrelated to safety violated the requirement to provide due process.

"A person's ability to lawfully register a motor vehicle and its attendant government-sanctioned ability to drive is widely recognized as a property interest that may not be taken away without due process of law," Lockwood wrote. "Due process requires the agency to conduct ability-to-pay inquiries at each stage in a case, including the point at which it proposes to take coercive action to punish nonpayment."

The county has yet to respond to the suit.

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