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Wisconsin not among states blocking license suspensions for unpaid fines
Driver penalty reform debated

RACINE — Drivers losing their licenses has become a growing problem in the city and nationwide.

For some, paying $150 for the average speeding ticket is a nuisance, but isn’t a huge burden; it won’t make them miss a rent payment or cut back on necessities like food. But for those with lower incomes, one speeding ticket or a couple parking violations, or even court fines unrelated to driving, can cause a spiral of debt, tickets and legal troubles.

In Wisconsin, as in most states, driver’s licenses can be suspended if fines for any court debts that are not paid off, from child support to a parking tickets. And advocates say that people who are poor or low-income bare the brunt of this burden.

“The person can’t pay the ticket, which causes their driver’s license to be suspended. Then, that person may lose their job or lose out on a job opportunity because they don’t have a valid driver’s license or a legal way to get to work,” Susan Lund, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, wrote in an email to The Journal Times. “This, clearly, makes them even less likely to be able to pay the ticket, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.”

An increasing number of states, as well as a few federal judges, are finding the practice of revoking someone’s driving privilege, simply for not paying a fine, to be unethical.

And the topic has drawn attention, and action, from both outgoing Racine Municipal Judge Rebecca Mason and members of the City Council.

A large-scale problem

Nearly 60 percent (approximately 250,000 out of 420,000) of the licenses that were suspended in Wisconsin in 2013 were for failure to pay fines, while only about 170,000 were suspended for all other reasons combined — like a drunken driving conviction or accumulating too many demerit points — according to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute.

“It is difficult for a community to thrive if it has a high rate of suspended licenses. People need to be able to drive to work and to school,” Mason said in an email. “For these reasons, I have worked to greatly reduce the number of driver’s licenses that the Racine Municipal Court suspends.”

In some states, these suspensions can’t happen at all.

In seven states, licenses can’t be suspended for nonpayment of fines. This includes in Illinois — although Chicago has a local law that allows licenses to be suspended if someone has 10 or more unpaid parking tickets.

Approximately 200,000 drivers in Tennessee and Michigan received word that their licenses would be reinstated in July 2018 and December 2017, respectively. In those cases, federal judges found that it was unconstitutional to force a low-income individual to pay a debt to the government, especially since revoking someone’s license can impugn someone’s ability to make money that could be used to pay off that fine.

“If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote in her ruling on the Tennessee case.

The UW-Milwaukee study called it a “catch-22 scenario.”

In only four states, including Minnesota, you can still have your license suspended for not paying a ticket, but only if you deliberately choose not to pay. If the court finds that an individual simply doesn’t have enough money to cover the fine(s), it won’t suspend your license.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is opposed to failure to pay suspension laws as well.

It argued in 2013 that “the dramatic increase in suspensions has led … law enforcement, courts and society in general (to) view suspensions less seriously. As a result, the system is less effective in keeping dangerous drivers off the road, which was the original intent of driver license suspensions.”

When it comes to revenue and costs on local governments, having so many suspensions can “create a significant strain on budgets and other resources and detract from highway and public safety priorities,” the AAMVA wrote, citing a Department of Motor Vehicles report.

The punishment also appears to not fit the crime, the AAMVA argued.

For example, failure to pay a ticket for a burnt-out tail light can carry a two-year license suspension. A suspension for a first-offense OWI maxes out at only nine months. For reckless driving, it’s only six months. And for speeding 25-mph over the limit, suspensions are a mere 15 days.

In addition to the cost of the ticket, Lund said that being convicted for operating without a license can be just as costly as an OWI when it comes to your insurance rates.


The threat of jail and license suspension is supposed to be a “tool” to encourage drivers to pay their fines, the UW-M study said.

But without the prod of a possible license suspension, what can the state or municipalities do to make people pay off their fines?

Last year, the City of Green Bay decided to garnish tax returns of those who had failed to pay, since the city had a backlog of the more than $830,000 in unpaid parking tickets.

And Washington, D.C. has been considering a change to a local law that would block failure to pay suspensions for people who make less than $39,000 per year.

In addition to losing your license, you can even be jailed for not paying fines, although Judge Mason said she only issues these warrants in “the most extreme cases.”

While upholding the law, Mason has been working to make it easier for citizens to get their licenses reinstated.

Following an example set in Milwaukee, Mason sponsored a Driver’s License Recovery Day on Nov. 29, during which people could get their licenses unsuspended by committing to a payment plan to incrementally settle their debts with the city.

Only about a dozen eligible people attended the event and got their licenses reinstated. Still, several hundred people reportedly called in before the event and received information about getting their licenses reinstated — many of the callers had lost their licenses for reasons other than fines, or owed fines to a municipality other than the City of Racine, so Mason wasn’t able to help them.

Last month, the Racine City Council approved an advisory resolution, calling for the state to change its laws regarding failure to pay suspensions.

“It makes sense to remove a license if you’re a bad driver,” Racine 3rd District Alderman John Tate said on Jan. 15. “It makes no sense to remove a license for a reason that has nothing to do with that behavior.”

Council passes bill supporting licenses for undocumented, poor

RACINE — The City Council on Tuesday approved an advisory resolution supporting licenses for undocumented immigrants and residents whose licenses have been suspended for minor infractions or for failure to pay fines to have their licenses reinstated.

“Imposing a failure to pay suspension on such an individual is unlikely to coerce payment and could cause irreparable harm,” Lund added.

The City Council’s advisory resolution — which made no legal changes, only serving as a call for change at the state level — was two-pronged. It not only called for an end to the suspending of driver’s licenses because of an inability to pay, but also asked for undocumented immigrants to be able to get licenses — a privilege that was taken away in 2007.

Pete Wicklund / GREGORY SHAVER, For The Journal Times  

Sam Lux carves a block of ice Saturday afternoon, Feb. 2, 2019, during Downtown Racine Corporation’s Fire and Ice Festival on Monument Square. The free community event featured ice skating, ice sculpting, bonfires, a food vendor and a fire and ice-themed scavenger hunt. For more photos from the event, see Out on the Town, page A10.

Judicial reprimand recommended
Unpaid suspension recommended for Racine judge

RACINE — A state judicial oversight panel has recommended that a Racine County judge serve a temporary suspension after what the Wisconsin Judicial Commission alleges was misconduct in office.

On Jan. 17, a panel of three Wisconsin court of appeals judges recommended that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek be suspended for between five and 15 days without pay.

The decision was made after Piontek urged the panel to recommend “a public reprimand only,” the document states.

“A reprimand, public or private, can be perceived as nothing more than a slap on the wrist for what is serious misconduct,” the judicial conduct panel recommendation states. “A suspension for not less than five days and not more than 15 days is appropriate discipline to foster public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.”

The recommendation will now go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which will review the panel’s report, adopt findings and conclusions and determine the appropriate sanction or other disposition.

Piontek graduated from law school in 1974. He served as Racine County Assistant Corporation Counsel from 1974 to 1975, as a Racine County Assistant District Attorney from 1975 to 1977, and practiced privately from 1977 to 2012.

Over his 45-year legal career, this is the first time Piontek has ever been the subject of a complaint or grievance.

“I am profoundly sorry for the mistakes I made and deeply regret the negative impact they have had on the judicial, legal and public communities,” Piontek stated in a Jan. 2 letter regarding the commission case. “I deserve the public humiliation of me and my career resulting from front-page newspaper articles in my community.”

‘Improper’ phone call

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission complaint, which was filed in June, alleges violations against Piontek in two cases dating back to 2014.

The first case involved a man charged in 2014 with theft of more than $10,000, making fraudulent claims and obstructing an officer.

The Judicial Commission’s complaint alleges that Piontek, who presided over the case, called the prosecutor from his chambers about the case and did not notify or include the defendant’s attorney.

During the call, Piontek allegedly said he believed any plea deal should include a felony conviction of the defendant and that “people like (the defendant) who involve themselves in scams like this need to be stopped.”

The prosecutor later submitted a letter summarizing the phone call and sent a copy to the defendant’s attorney and Piontek. The judge subsequently recused himself from the case; however, the oversight commission argues Piontek did not recuse himself quickly enough.

The Judicial Commission also argues that Piontek’s phone call violated the Supreme Court’s prohibition of ex parte communications concerning pending matters.

The judicial panel alleges that Piontek — at least twice — denied the contents of the prosecutor’s letter while the commission’s investigation was pending.

“Only later, when he filed his response to the commission’s complaint, did Judge Piontek admit that he initiated the Dec. 3, 2014, phone call and that he made the statements attributed to him,” the document states.

Piontek is also accused of violating the obligation to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system and to act without bias or prejudice.

Independent investigation

In the second matter, the complaint states that Piontek presided over the sentencing of a former nurse, who had pleaded guilty to several criminal charges.

The Judicial Commission alleges that Piontek initiated an independent online investigation about the defendant and did not tell the parties in the case until after they made their arguments and statements at the sentencing hearing. The complaint further alleges that the judge used the investigation to determine a sentence.

According to a Supreme Court rule “(a) judge must not independently investigate facts in a case and must consider only the evidence presented.”

The defendant in the matter later filed a post-conviction motion requesting resentencing, which was denied by Piontek. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals later reversed Piontek's judgement of conviction and ordered the defendant to be resentenced.

The Judicial Commission accused Piontek of again engaging in ex parte communications and diminishing public confidence in the judiciary. He was also accused of failing to promote public confidence in the judiciary, similar to in the first case.

“Although Judge Piontek now admits his conduct and credibly disclaims any malicious intent behind his actions, his subsequent statements indicate to us that he fails to appreciate the serious nature of his violations and the impact on the integrity of the judicial system,” the recommendation states.

“I remain vigilant and fearful of ever repeating my mistakes,” Piontek’s letter states. “They will not happen again.”

“I am profoundly sorry for the mistakes I made and deeply regret the negative impact they have had on the judicial, legal and public communities.” — Michael J. Piontek, Racine County Circuit Court judge


Racine City Council
Council to finally discuss proposal to eliminate parking meters

RACINE — The City Council is scheduled to discuss a proposal to remove the city’s parking meters that was proposed over a year ago and has been on hold for over six months.

On Tuesday, the Committee of the Whole is scheduled to discuss 5th District Alderman Steve Smetana’s proposal for removing all parking meters throughout Racine.

The Committee of the Whole, a subcommittee of the City Council, does not normally include a public hearing, but one has been added to the agenda so the council can hear the general public’s thoughts on the proposal.

Why now?

Smetana first submitted the proposal in November 2017, stating that he thought the move would make the city more welcoming. The last time the issue was on a the council agenda was in July.

The city’s Transit and Parking Commission discussed the idea in February 2018 before referring the conversation to the Committee of the Whole.

The City Council in March voted to schedule the discussion within 30 days, but Mayor Cory Mason vetoed the timing. Mason stated that the veto was based on both a scheduling conflict and the fact that meeting agendas are the purview of a body’s chairman.

Council President Jason Meekma said it’s been challenging to fit the parking meter discussion into the council’s schedule.

“I have been working on finding a time where we can honor this discussion in the manner (Smetana) wants to see it addressed, while at the same time trying to juggle all the other requests and conflicts,” Meekma wrote in an email. “ The second part is allowing the city staff the time to gather information and even now there is work to be done.”

Meekma said that while many council members recognize that citizens would happily get rid of the meters, they do provide income to the city. And without them, the city would need a system for designating long-term parking spaces for Downtown residents and short-term parking for customers.

“There is a lot to consider and that has played a part in the delay of getting to this item,” wrote Meekma. “I wish we could have gotten to this sooner, for the sake of the discussion and out of respect for (Smetana).”

Meekma said that city staff is now better prepared to discuss the issue and the council hopes to hear from the general public.

“Hopefully, this will all lead to a solid discussion on this issue,” Meekma wrote.