Uninsured motorists in Arizona have a new law to contend with: under a change in state insurance law which went into effect late in 2009, drivers who are convicted of driving without proof of insurance will face an automatic 90-day long suspension of their licenses.
Before the new law took effect, judges had the option to waive license suspensions if the cited driver purchased insurance, and provided proof of coverage, at the time of sentencing, but the new law takes that option away from judges, and gives the responsibility of suspending licenses to the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles, which, according to Somerton Municipal Judge Manuel Figueroa, makes the three-month suspension virtually automatic.
Judge Figueroa also said that uninsured drivers are getting a rude awakening in court because the change in the law has not been widely publicized. “This penalty continues to surprise motorists who have been accustomed to judges being flexible,” he told the Sun. He added, “This concerns me a lot, because this change was not published. We ourselves were surprised by it. We didn’t find out until the law was in effect, a month after the act. It’s affecting and will continue to affect thousands of people across the state.”
But how big a problem is this for Arizona? Capt. Eben Bratcher, spokesman for the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, told the press that deputies issue citations for not having insurance, or proof thereof, on a “fairly regular” basis.
“It is more common that the motorists are just being careless and aren’t carrying their proof of insurance in their vehicle,” Bratcher told reporters. “There is also a citation for that.”
Bratcher also pointed out that while the new version of the law may not have been well publicized, Arizona has had a mandatory insurance law requiring all drivers to have liability insurance at a minimum, for many years. “We strive to keep up with all the changes in the law and once they become active to start enforcing them,” she said. “While we do recognize there are changes in the law that require a grace period, one isn’t needed in this case because having automobile insurance has been the law for many years.”
Under the mandatory insurance law, which covers motorcycles, mopeds, and golf carts, as well as cars and trucks, the required minimum liability insurance is $15,000 for bodily injury per person, $30,000 to cover bodily injury for more than one person and $10,000 for property damage.
In addition to a 90-day suspenion of driving privileges, convicted uninsured motorists are subject to a fine in the amount of $995.20, though this can be reduced to $231.60 upon presentation of proof of insurance, and a record that has no convictions for lack of insurance in the previous 39 months.
What do the judges think of the new law? Figueroa says they’re a bit frustrated by the change, “…because in the courts there’s nothing we can do. In my personal opinion, there are more important things that we should be doing to protect ourselves, but whatever, we will enforce this statute.”
Bratcher, on the other hand, simply stressed the point that drivers who have insurance, but aren’t carrying proof of coverage will not lose their driving privileges, though they would still have to pay the reduced fine. Only motorists who are completely uninsured will be subject to the license suspension. “It is a driver’s responsibility to carry their proof of insurance with them at all times,” she reiterated.
But Figueroa has another concern: even though lack of proof of insurance is not punishable with jail time, driving on a suspended license is. “This law is so drastic that it’s going to create another level of criminal offense,” he cautioned. “That’s why we recommend that people not ignore these infractions, and that they come to court so we can explain to them the situation and their options.” He added that in addition to the loss of driving privileges, drivers who are cited for lack of insurance will end up paying more in fines than they would have in insurance premiums.