You may be able to reinstate your license in spite of one or more unpaid traffic tickets. It mostly depends on the traffic laws violated.
We’re deep into a series of blog posts about powerful, less familiar benefits of bankruptcy. One important one is getting your suspended driver’s license reinstated. Whether you can get your license reinstated through bankruptcy depends a lot on the reason for the suspension. Last week we covered suspensions for not paying a judgment from a motor vehicle accident while driving uninsured or underinsured. Today we cover suspensions for not paying one or more traffic tickets.
License Reinstatement Depends on Discharge of the Traffic Ticket(s)
Our last blog post showed how bankruptcy reinstates a license suspended because of an unpaid debt from an accident. These suspensions usually come from not paying a court judgment or debt from an uninsured motor vehicle accident. Usually such a debt can be legally written off (“discharged”) through bankruptcy. After bankruptcy takes away the reason for the suspension, the driver’s license can be reinstated.
It works about the same way with traffic tickets. If your license was suspended for not paying traffic tickets, a bankruptcy can sometimes discharge what you owe on those tickets. That could enable you to reinstate your license.
Not Available Under Chapter 7
Chapter 7 (“straight bankruptcy”) doesn’t work with traffic ticket suspensions. Chapter 7 doesn’t discharge “a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit.” See Section 523(a)(7) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. A debt owed for a traffic ticket is a “fine” or “penalty” that you owe to the state, city or other local “governmental unit” whose police issued it to you. Because Chapter 7 doesn’t discharge traffic tickets, it cannot reinstate a driver’s license suspended for nonpayment of those tickets.
Need to File Under Chapter 13
However, Chapter 13 is different. It may be able to discharge the debt from your tickets. That’s because Chapter 13 does NOT exclude “a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit” from discharge. See Section 1328(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code. That Subsection lists the kinds of debts that Chapter 13 does not discharge. It refers to some but not all of the kinds of debts that Chapter 7 cannot discharge. The kinds of debts listed do NOT include the “fine” and “penalty” one referred to above—Section 523(a)(7). This means that Chapter 13 CAN discharge such “fines” and “penalties,” including certain traffic ticket debts. Since Chapter 13 can discharge traffic tickets, it may enable you to reinstate your license suspended for that reason.
Traffic Crimes vs. Violations or Infractions
Whether Chapter 13 can discharge the ticket debt depends on the nature of the law(s) you violated. Neither Chapter 7 nor Chapter 13 can discharge criminal fines or restitution. So the traffic ticket(s) must not be for a crime, but rather for a traffic violation or infraction. It can’t be for a misdemeanor or felony.
Chapter 13 specifically excludes from discharge “any debt… for restitution, or a criminal fine, included in a sentence on the debtor’s conviction of a crime.” See Section 1328(a)(3). So did your license suspension came from breaking a traffic law requiring you to pay restitution or a criminal fine? If so that restitution or fine could not be discharged in bankruptcy, thereby not enabling your license to be reinstated. But if your ticket(s) are from traffic violation(s) or infraction(s), those could be discharged and your license reinstated.
This Can Be Unclear and Feel Arbitrary
What’s the difference between a dischargeable non-criminal traffic violation or infraction and a nondischargeable criminal fine? This is often not clear. None of these words are defined in the Bankruptcy Code. Whether breaking a traffic law is considered non-criminal or criminal can be quite arbitrary. It can turn on the coincidence of the words used in your state’s statutes or your local jurisdiction’s ordinances.
Generally, the more serious a violation of the traffic laws, the more likely that violation would be considered criminal. On one extreme, parking tickets are most likely not criminal. On the other extreme are serious violations that would likely be considered criminal, such as reckless driving, hit and run, and evading arrest. Your bankruptcy lawyer has experience with your local and state jurisdictions’ laws to advise you in making this crucial distinction.
License Reinstatement Procedure
Assume that Chapter 13 would discharge your particular traffic ticket debts. Under Chapter 13 the discharge of your debts does not happen until the end of the 3-to-5 year case. You may or may not have to wait that long to reinstate your license. It depends on local procedures.
Those procedures involve a number of authorities—the state or local court imposing the traffic fine, the state motor vehicles department reinstating your license, and the bankruptcy court discharging the traffic fine debt.
So, no question, this is complicated. Your bankruptcy lawyer will help in two huge ways. First, he or she will advise you whether you will be able to reinstate your license. If so, second, your lawyer will be aware of policies and practices of each of the authorities (or can research this), and guide your case through them efficiently. Then your license will be reinstated as quickly as possible.