Attack on the poor? Bill would require vehicles be impounded if drivers caught without license

MADISON -- Anyone caught driving without a valid license would have their vehicle impounded, under a bill proposed by a Republican state lawmaker.

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, expects the legislation he's filed will get dangerous drivers off Wisconsin roads, but critics view it as an attack on low-income people.

Last year in Wisconsin, law enforcement officers ticketed 114,117 people for either driving without a license or having a suspended or revoked license. Sanfelippo said the state is doing a poor job of keeping bad drivers off the road.

"They’ll get somebody to come pick up the car for them and drive it away, and then an hour later (the offender) is back driving the car again,"he said.

More than 114,000 people were ticketed last year for not having valid driver's licenses

About 16 percent of drivers who had their licenses suspended or revoked in 2011, the most recent year available, were because they'd been caught for alcohol-related offenses, such as operating while intoxicated.

Another 57 percent of people had their licenses taken away because they couldn't pay traffic-related fines, the data show.

Sanfelippo's office provided the numbers, which the lawmaker said had been requested from the state Transportation Department. A spokeswoman for the DOT said she couldn't immediately provide more current statistics.

Critics of the legislation pointed to the 57 percent of people who couldn't afford to pay fines, saying they still need to drive to get to their jobs.

"I think that (the bill) is unfairly punishing poor people," said Molly Gena, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin. Gena provides legal help to lower-income people trying to their licenses back.

She said lower-income people certainly can't afford to get their vehicles out of an impound lot, meaning they'd be stuck without a car and a way to provide for their families.

Molly Gena

"These are not the people who I believe the representative is targeting," she said. "These are not the people that are getting OWIs, so (the bill) is not going to make the roads any safer in Wisconsin."

Judges can suspend a person's license for two years for failure to pay fines, which Gena said is longer than the suspension for a first-offense OWI conviction.

Sanfelippo's bill includes an exception for drivers whose licenses had expired within the past six months. The legislation isn't intended to punish people who'd simply forgotten to renew their licenses, he explained.

Driver pulled over

The lawmaker denied having an interest in punishing poor people, either.

"We don`t pass laws in Wisconsin and then have an income test to decide if you have to follow the law or you don`t. The law is the law," he said.

This bill hasn't yet gotten a hearing in Madison.

Sanfelippo has also proposed separate bill that would increase the fines for driving without insurance.

CLICK HERE to read traffic citation statistics provided by Rep. Sanfelippo’s office.

READ IT: Statement from Rep. Sanfelippo on this bill.