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Baltimore resident Jason Butler speaks about how he spent a month in jail over unpaid traffic fines. Attorney General Brian Frosh is pushing legislation to ban the state from jailing Marylanders over unpaid traffic fees.
Baltimore resident Jason Butler speaks about how he spent a month in jail over unpaid traffic fines. Attorney General Brian Frosh is pushing legislation to ban the state from jailing Marylanders over unpaid traffic fees. (Luke Broadwater)

After the rioting of 2015, Baltimore resident Jason Butler, 37, was widely praised on news sites and social media for quickly taking to the streets to help lead a community cleanup.

Last year, Butler, a father of four, found himself caught up in the same justice system many had protested against: He was jailed for a month after driving on a suspended license over unpaid traffic fines.

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Butler on Wednesday appeared alongside Attorney General Brian Frosh and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers to call for an end to Maryland’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses over traffic debt. Online court records show he was convicted of using a cellphone while driving.

“I’ve been on the wrong end of the existing laws that are on the books,” Butler said. “For minor traffic offenses, I wound up having my driver’s license suspended. I was incarcerated. I lost my job. I lost my apartment. I sat in jail for a month.”

Frosh said an estimated 30,000 Marylanders could be affected by the legislation. It hasn’t been introduced yet, but would allow people who have overdue parking or speeding tickets to continue to drive. Frosh said those matters should be resolved civilly, not criminally.

The purpose, he said, was to keep poor drivers from losing their licenses, then their jobs and getting trapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

“They get sucked into a vortex of punishment and poverty,” Frosh said.

Among those appearing with Frosh were: Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, state Sens. William C. Smith Jr. and Chris West, and Dels. Brooke Lierman, Dalya Attar and Regina T. Boyce.

West, a Baltimore County Republican, and Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, sponsored a similar bill last year, but it died in committee.

“Mobility in Maryland is key to people’s success in the economy,” Lierman said. “This legislation is incredibly important to remove a barrier, fulfill their potential and access jobs and school."

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