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Driving With A Suspended License in New York City (New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 511)

By Don Murray, Esq.

Few people expect to have a night "in the system" in New York City in their futures, but one particular group of "offenders" are almost universally shocked when it happens to them - those who are driving in New York City while their licenses are suspended as a result of a failure to pay one or more speeding tickets.

Many people whose licenses are suspended are driving around New York City at any given moment. Whether these people realize it or not, the failure to appear or pay for even a single speeding ticket can result in the Department of Motor Vehicles suspending your license.

Furthermore, if you are an out of state resident and have an out of state driver's license, your "privilege" to drive in New York can be suspended if you fail to pay a speeding ticket. New York State keeps track of this and if you are stopped for any reason by a police officer in New York City while driving, you will be arrested and probably put through the system.

It used to be that such cases of driving while your license was suspended did not result in people being put through the system and held for upwards of 24 hours. In most cases, in days long gone, such cases were almost always dealt with by summons or desk appearance ticket, in which the person arrested is simply given a piece of paper informing him of the need to return to court to deal with the issue.

That changed even before the police stopped issuing desk appearance tickets with regularity. Police department and District Attorneys' Offices policy changes made in response to a couple of cases that made the press involving drivers who had no licenses causing accidents has caused the current situation. Many years ago the press identified an "epidemic" and the police and prosecutors responded by making the preposterous connection between the fact that the drivers in question had their licenses suspended and the fact that they got into ugly accidents. The fact that there was no necessary rational connection between these two facts, and the fact that the administrative formality of obtaining proper paperwork would not change the driving habits of anyone, did not make any difference. No demonstrated formula could possibly connect the administrative formality of keeping up to date with paying traffic tickets and quality of driving. But the press identified an "epidemic" and the police and prosecutors responded with a policy.

The new policy was to take these driving without a license cases "seriously". That meant that most of these new cases would have to go "though the system".

In New York City, that means usually spending the better part of 24 hours in police custody.

But that is not all. Most people would probably assume that a person arrested for such a trivial administrative issue as driving even though outstanding tickets have not been paid, would be treated a little differently from the rest of the criminally accused.


People arrested for driving on a suspended license are treated precisely the same as people arrested for armed robbery. They are handcuffed and frisked in public, chained together with other accused criminals and transported in police vans together with other accused criminals. They are held in the same filthy, horrible, miserable cages as the people accused of murder, armed robbery and rape.

People arrested for driving on a suspended license will be fingerprinted, photographed, and treated with the same dehumanization techniques as everyone else arrested. People arrested for driving on a suspended license will be referred to in the system as "bodies" just like everyone else arrested for robbery, rape, and murder.

Many of the people arrested for driving with a suspended license are people who have never been in any form of real trouble before, and would sooner have imagined themselves walking on Mars as being held in the New York City arrest to arraignment process.

And consider this: The information upon which the police make the determination to put somebody though the arrest to arraignment process comes from The Department of Motor Vehicles. Can you imagine a more frightening prospect than that? Realize that there is no debate with the police officer when your license comes up as having been suspended.

Welcome to the world of "All I know is what it says here on this printout from DMV. You can take it up with the judge." (Actually, you can't take it up with the judge, because the Criminal Court Judge has absolutely nothing to do with the DMV and the Criminal Court Judge is likely to say something like, "All I know is what it says here on this printout.")

Even in the event that New York Department of Motor Vehicles records might be wrong, you will spend about 24 hours in jail waiting to see a judge.

Ultimately, of course, once you see a judge it is likely to be resolved or if not resolved, you are likely to be released without bail. In many, but not all cases, the criminal matter can be resolved at arraignment with a traffic infraction and a small fine. Keep in mind, however, that the resolution of the criminal matter does not resolve the ticket issue with DMV. Criminal court doesn't care whether you have a million dollars in outstanding tickets, unless you get behind the wheel of a car in New York.

However the criminal matter is resolved, you will still need to clear up the issue with the Department of Motor Vehicles if you ever want to drive legally in New York again.

New York City spends what must be a fortune putting people arrested for Driving on Suspended Licenses “through the system”. Many people every day come through facing these types of charges. This seems an unwise use of scarce public resources when you consider that it really amounts to simply enforcing administrative rules relating to the collection of money. Driving after not paying a speeding ticket in New York is a crime not because it is something that is inherently wrong or evil, like murder. It is a crime simply because the New York State Legislature has made it a crime (a “because we said so” type of argument) as a means to encourage people to pay the Government money they owe. And if it is all about the money, how can it possibly make sense to spend many times the amount of money likely owed by putting them through the system?

And if the theory is that arresting people and putting them through the system will act as some kind of deterrent, then the theory is wrong. It can be a deterrent only if it is known or believed to really happen. Nobody ever believes that they are going to be held in a filthy cage for 24 hours with all other people accused of all manner of crimes from shoplifting to murder for simply driving after not having paid a speeding ticket. People reading this article will still not believe it is going to happen. It is such a preposterously out of proportion Governmental response to the “problem” that it has no credibility as a deterrent.

And yet it happens every day in New York City many times over.

The lesson to be learned from this policy is to pay your tickets and then make sure that the DMV records are accurate, and then make sure that the DMV records remain accurate.

And whenever you pay a ticket, get a receipt, have it laminated, and keep it with you in your wallet as proof for the rest of your life. Keep a backup copy at home as well. If you are able to produce a receipt at the moment when the police officer is explaining to you that your license has been suspended for failing to pay the ticket, it is possible, although not entirely certain, that you may not be put through the system.

As I said before, the moment of arrest is not usually an opportunity for extended discussion or debate of the issues. There is no "I've got proof at my house, just call my wife." Figure you have about 8 - 10 seconds to produce absolute unambiguous proof (on the order of Divine Intervention) that you paid the ticket and then hope for the best. Don't expect the police officer to do anything other than pretend that the Department of Motor Vehicles is the most efficient, reliable, and unassailable agency ever created by mankind. Despite what may be the common perception that the Department of Motor Vehicle records are almost per se unreliable, the police officer will likely take the position that if the computer says you didn't pay your ticket, as far as he is concerned, you didn't pay your ticket.

Driving with a suspended license charges can often land the unsuspecting motorist in jail in New York City. What is especially troubling about this is that in many cases drivers are legitimately unaware of the suspension as a result of mistakes at the DMV or as a result of the peculiar way that certain surcharges on tickets that are in fact paid are billed separately and occasionally left unpaid.
— Don Murray

Driving With a Suspended License VTL 511

Overview of the surprising manner in which New York City Criminal Courts handle cases of driving with a suspended license in New York City.

Call 718-268-2171 for more information about Driving With Suspended License cases in New York or to schedule your free consultation with a New York criminal defense lawyer from Shalley & Murray.

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