Crime and Justice

Advocates say traffic fine reforms would reduce economic barriers

David Cahill

David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, speaks to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would reinstate driving privileges to thousands of Vermonters whose licenses were suspended due to failure to pay a traffic fine.

The legislation would reduce fines for people who are living at the poverty level or who receive state benefits.

Some 59,000 Vermonters currently have suspended licenses, according to a task force report submitted to the Legislature last week. More than half — approximately 34,000 licenses — are suspended because of failure to pay a traffic fine.

Driver’s license suspensions have been the subject of statewide and national scrutiny. Vermont’s system as it currently works is “essentially criminalizing poverty,” Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis told legislators last week.

Fines for minor traffic violations are often out of reach for low-income Vermonters, Curtis said. When one fine goes unpaid, driving privileges are suspended, but that person might continue to drive to get to work and pick up children from school, he said. If caught, the driver is charged with additional violations.

The fines snowball and can run into the hundreds of dollars, creating a barrier for low-income Vermonters who live in rural areas and need car transportation for daily life.

Curtis said he had a client who was sanctioned by the Reach Up program, a benefits program that helps low-income families, because she was unable to get to appointments due to a license suspension.

“You have folks that are trying to meet their obligations, do the right thing, but if their license is suspended they can’t necessarily meet those obligations,” Curtis said.

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Some Vermont prosecutors have tried to address the issue on a regional level. In March, motorists from four counties who had suspended licenses could pay off outstanding traffic tickets for $20 at a one-day event in Burlington. A similar event took place in Windsor County last month.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who spearheaded the license restoration day in Burlington, spoke to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Donovan said he heard from employers about the positive impact the amnesty day had on workers.

“The best form of public safety is a good job,” Donovan said.

Lawmakers reviewed a 33-page draft bill Friday that would overhaul the driver’s license suspension system to make fines more affordable for low-income Vermonters and reduce the penalties.

The bill is based on the recommendations of a task force charged with studying driving with license suspended, or DLS.

Under the proposal, a person who gets a traffic ticket would have the option to apply for an “indigent waiver,” which, if granted, would reduce the fine by half.

The waiver would be granted if the driver can provide the court with a sworn statement that his or her income is no more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or proof of receiving assistance through benefits programs, including 3SquaresVT, Reach Up or Medicaid.

The idea is that low-income people could pay the reduced fine and not lose driving privileges. Those who fail to pay a ticket under the proposal would have their license suspended.

The bill would shorten the suspension period from 120 days to 30 days and immediately restore privileges to any drivers whose licenses have been suspended for 30 days or longer due to failure to pay a fine.

The legislation also would drastically change the process at the end of the suspension. Reinstatement would be automatic. In the current system, people must reinstate their licenses after the suspension and pay a $71 reinstatement fee, which Curtis said is an additional barrier for low-income Vermonters trying to navigate the system.

The proposal does not affect license suspensions for other reasons, such as drunken driving.

David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs and a member of the task force, introduced the bill to lawmakers Thursday. Many prosecutors, he said, view DLS cases as a distraction from more pressing work.

The package would hike the penalty for driving under the influence, which Cahill said would bring it in line with other major motor vehicle offenses, such as negligent operation.

Because the bill deals with fees, it will likely go through the Ways and Means Committee.

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Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday that she expects to have the support of many of her colleagues on the bill.

“Every one of us has constituents that are affected by this,” Grad said.

Grad, a 16-year veteran of the committee, said lawmakers have adjusted DLS laws many times in the past. The system, she said, is “not working.”

While the driver restoration days in Chittenden and Windsor counties last year were successful, Grad said her committee sees the need for a statewide solution.

“We’re learning more and more about the impact of criminal records and collateral consequences,” Grad said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin told lawmakers he supported the legislation in his State of the State address Thursday.

“The stories that T.J. and I heard from lower-income Vermonters standing in line for redemption made me ask: Why are we creating a permanent economic disability and making it so difficult for people who want to improve their lives? I ask you to make driver restoration days unnecessary by passing legislation that ensures non-traffic-related offenses don’t lead to Vermonters’ losing their ability to get to work or drop their kids at school,” he said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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