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Alabama city offers people fresh start by forgiving minor municipal fines

Five years ago, when I met Sharon Motley in Montgomery, Alabama, her young grandson was doing backflips in her living room while she did mental gymnastics on the couch. Her driver’s license had been suspended for five years for minor traffic fines. She was turning over in her head how she could pay them off.

Motley knew too well that most jobs in Alabama require a valid driver’s license. Several employers rescinded job offers due to her suspended license. The suspension did not incentivize paying off the fines; it made that prospect virtually impossible. Motley felt that she had no choice but to drive because Alabama has one of the country’s weakest public transportation systems. Nearly 95% of people travel to work by car.

Her plight is common for people with low incomes who face traffic fines in the Deep South, where the Southern Poverty Law Center is based. Our work in Montgomery is one example of how we have fought to end policies that only serve to punish people for lacking the money to pay their fines. It also highlights a path for reform in other cities and states.

In 2014, the SPLC filed a lawsuit after the city arrested Harriet Cleveland, a 50-year-old grandmother, as she babysat her grandson. As part of a settlement agreement, the city agreed to policy changes ensuring that no one would be jailed solely because they cannot pay a municipal court fine.

In 2014, the SPLC filed a lawsuit after the city of Montgomery sentenced Harriet Cleveland to jail over unpaid traffic fines.

Despite these changes, Motley remained afraid of what might happen to her if she returned to court and could not pay. The SPLC represented Motley in her individual cases and filed a lawsuit challenging the state law that authorized courts to suspend licenses for failing to pay traffic fines. Although the lawsuit was dismissed on procedural grounds, the Alabama Legislature later passed a law limiting when courts may suspend licenses for unpaid traffic fines.

This is progress.

Forgiveness for fines

What’s more, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed signed an executive order this year forgiving all unpaid municipal court fines older than 10 years. The SPLC urged the mayor to sign the order while serving on a task force examining the issue and advising the mayor.

headshot of a woman
A suspended driver's license had prevented Sharon Motley of Montgomery, Alabama, from pursuing job opportunities, but she recently started a new job after her traffic fines were forgiven.

The city estimated that the executive order would waive $10 million of municipal court debt in a city where many Black people and individuals who experience poverty struggle to pay such debt.

“This order reflects a broader change in how we approach justice in Montgomery,” Reed said when he signed the order. The city “will ensure that financial burden doesn’t dictate who succeeds and who struggles in our city.”

Five years after our first meeting, Motley’s grandson is no longer doing backflips in her living room. He has taken up football. But Motley’s mind continues to turn over as she thinks about the hardships she faced because of her suspended license.

In April, Motley received a letter in the mail: The city had forgiven her traffic fines. The city also forgave her twin sister’s traffic fines. Her sister had been afraid to drive for 20 years. Motley plans to help her sister get her license reinstated.

Motley recently started a job as a branch manager for a staffing agency. She has dreamed about such a position for years, but she could not achieve that goal while her license had been suspended. Getting her license reinstated allowed her to achieve that dream.

Other cities should follow Montgomery’s lead and give residents like Motley an opportunity to put decades-old traffic tickets behind them.

No one should be punished simply because they are poor.

Micah West is a senior staff attorney for economic justice at the SPLC.

Steven Reed, mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, signs an executive order forgiving municipal fines on Feb. 29, 2024. (Credit: Jake Crandall/Montgomery Advertiser)