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Floridians who can't pay their traffic tickets could face jail time

In Florida, failure to pay traffic tickets can lead to license suspension, and then arrest.

Floridians who can’t afford their traffic tickets can sometimes end up behind bars. That’s what happened to Rae Bishop, 50.

“They stopped me because of my tail light being out. Now I find myself here in handcuffs going to jail. ‘I'm thinking what the hell is going on?’” she said.

The answer to Bishop’s question goes back to October of last year when she ran a red light and got her picture taken. The ticket was $262 she couldn't afford.

“Where am I supposed to get the X amount of dollars to pay the rest, like my rent, my water?” Bishop said. “It’s an old saying ‘steal from Peter to pay Paul.’”

Her license got suspended for not paying the ticket. When an officer stopped her in January, it wasn't the first time she got caught driving without a license, so now, she was looking at a felony.

More than half a million Floridians got their licenses suspended between 2015 and 2016 for not paying traffic tickets, according to records from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Almost 100,000 were from the Tampa Bay area.

“It's not uncommon to uncover people who have a suspended driver's license,” Sgt. Steve Gaskins, Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs officer, said.

Not all of them go to jail, but if the driver knows their license is suspended, or if it's a third offense, they could face arrest.

“It could be a felony and at that point it's beyond the officer's control,” Sgt. Gaskins said. “He or she must take that person to jail.”

County records show at least 2,000 people in the Tampa Bay went to jail after getting caught driving with a suspended license. Not all those drivers got their licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets. Some have committed more serious crimes.

But people like Bishop are on the list.

“People who have lost their licenses in large part because of financial hardship are not the people we want to be locking up,” Andrew Warren, Hillsborough County State Attorney, said.

Even when they don't get arrested, drivers who don't pay their traffic fines on time face higher fees.

“Having fine upon fine upon fine only perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” Warren said.

Bishop still owes $260 after paying court fees.

“A lot of people think that's not a lot of money, but when you're on a fixed income it is a drop in the bucket,” Bishop said.

She has her license back now but if she doesn't pay up, she risks losing it again.

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