Kansas judges, legislators dig into details of suspended-license amnesty program (The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Sedgwick County Judge Phil Journey said state lawmakers can dramatically improve lives of low-income Kansans by adopting a statewide amnesty program for people with suspended drivers’ licenses.

The loss of driving privileges is often triggered by a traffic citation, failure to appear in court and inability to pay all fines.

“I have seen many individuals that owe in excess of $10,000 in fines and costs,” Journey said. “This is a periodic or one-time opportunity for drivers to get straightened out, much like other amnesties for income tax. Jurisdictions inside Kansas and outside the state have successfully implemented traffic amnesty programs. All without Chicken Little’s warnings of impending doom.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing Friday on Senate bill 87 attracted support from Journey and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. Opposition emerged from Merlin Wheeler, the chief district court judge in Lyon and Chase counties.

Under the bill, a person could enter into an amnesty agreement with prosecutors for waiver of fees, creation of a payment plan or for performance of community service in lieu of payment.

Faust-Goudeau, assistant minority leader of the Senate, said the city of Wichita’s amnesty programs were successful in closing old court cases, resolving outstanding warrants and assisting people with reinstatement of licenses.

“We didn’t waive fines or court costs,” she said. “We removed the threat of being arrested on a warrant. We waived warrant fees and collection agency fees.”

Wheeler, representing the Kansas District Judges Association, said the organization didn’t oppose development of a state program offering people relief from license reinstatement fees through the courts. However, he said, the road to reform didn’t go through the Senate bill.

He said the proposal compelled people to secure an agreement with prosecutors and present arrangements to a judge. Instead of initiating the two-step process, he said, it would be simpler if people could file a hardship request directly to the court.

The legislation doesn’t outline who is responsible for monitoring amnesty agreements, he said. It didn’t create an appeals process if someone accused a prosecutor of relying upon arbitrary reasons to deny an amnesty request, he said.

Wheeler said the bill didn’t include a standard to guide prosecutors and judges making determinations as to when relief ought to be approved.

“This will undoubtedly result in at least a lack of conformity across districts in the manner of granting relief and conflict between the courts and prosecutors as to whether relief should be granted,” Wheeler said.