Leah Jackson illegally turned through a red light in 2014 and got caught in an expensive spiral that has depleted the bank accounts of many Minnesotans.
She couldn't pay the $135 fine, and her license was suspended. Jackson, then a 20-year-old store manager, felt she had two options: keep driving and risk additional fines — or lose her job. She kept driving. The costs mounted. "So many people have been going through the same thing," said Jackson, of Minneapolis. "They are criminalizing poverty."
Some Minnesota lawmakers want to break that costly cycle. A measure now under consideration would prohibit the punishment of suspending someone's driver's license because they did not pay a traffic or parking ticket. Several states, from Mississippi to California, have made the change. Others face lawsuits from groups that want to end the practice.
"We're really creating a Catch-22," said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, sponsor of the House bill. It is one piece of a broader effort by Zerwas to change laws that unfairly burden the poor.
While his bill is headed to the House floor for a final vote, the Senate measure has stalled. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said lawmakers need to strike the right balance between helping those who cannot afford the fines and not encouraging people to break the law.
"You can't just not pay tickets and have no consequence because then everybody will just disregard the requirements," said Gazelka, who co-sponsored the legislation but is undecided about whether to move forward with it this year.
Attorneys and advocates said the legislation would not result in more law breakers or affect public safety, and argue the change is needed now.
Cases like Jackson's are common, prosecutors and public defenders said.
In Minneapolis, City Attorney Susan Segal said her office handled 855 driving-after-suspension cases in court last year. And 527 cases were referred to a diversion program that helps people reinstate their driver's licenses if they were lost due to unpaid citations.
Statewide, there were 146,497 driver's license suspensions last year, according to the Department of Public Safety. The department does not currently track how many were the result of someone failing to pay a ticket. Another bill Zerwas proposed would require annual reports on such information.
The court penalties are not the only expenses that pile up for these Minnesotans. When someone is ticketed for driving with a suspended license it significantly impacts their insurance rate.
Jackson, after receiving her tax return, was able to pay off her fines from the initial ticket and two citations for driving with a suspended license. But the traffic penalties continue to plague her pocketbook and have saddled her with debt. Her old car insurance company dropped her, and the new insurance she was able to secure costs $535 a month, about $400 more than she previously paid.
She has done the math: The fines and increased insurance costs have added up to $13,000 so far.
The current system is not just expensive for people struggling to pay the fines. It is also costly and time-consuming for the court system, said Jay Wong, an assistant public defender in Hennepin County who estimated about one-fourth of his time is dedicated to license suspension-related cases.
The number of driving-after-suspension cases has increased over the past decade, clogging court calendars and diverting time from more serious violations, Hennepin County public defender Jeanette Boerner said.
She described suspending licenses for failure to pay as a "vicious cycle" that results in more risky driving because people are paranoid about getting caught without a license and more likely to flee. Legislators noted that under the changes they are proposing, people who got tickets for reckless driving or driving while under the influence would still have their licenses suspended.
"You are taking judges', prosecutors' and public defenders' resources," Boerner said. "And it isn't getting any revenue to the state. It's not promoting public safety. It's not stopping bad driving behaviors. So what are we doing?"
At the State Capitol, Gazelka said senators are still coming up with the best way to help those who cannot pay while ensuring there are consequences for failing to pay a ticket.
However, Sen. Dan Hall, who sponsored the Senate bill, anticipates a hearing on the measure after the Legislature returns on Monday from a weeklong break. He said they are tweaking the legislation but did not have specifics on changes.
Lawmakers want to make sure people pay their fines while providing a path for them to do so — which involves ensuring they can get to work, said Hall, a Burnsville Republican. He first heard about the issue when his cousin lost his job after his license was suspended.
Hall noted that a Rutgers University survey found 42 percent of respondents lost their jobs when they had their driver's licenses suspended.
Both he and Zerwas are pushing for another change to state law that would allow judges to consider someone's ability to pay before adding a $75 surcharge on top of the cost of their ticket. While judges are able to waive or reduce traffic fines, there is nothing they can do about the surcharge, Zerwas said.
Minnesota raised the surcharge to $75 more than a decade ago amid budget shortfalls. Now that the state has a budget surplus, the legislators hope to change the fixed charge. However, the proposal — which would result in less income for the state — appears unlikely to advance this legislative session.
Jackson said without the surcharge she probably would have been able to pay her ticket and would not have ended up in debt.
"One bad day can turn someone's life upside down," Zerwas said. "I don't think the criminal justice system was ever designed or intended to do that."