First Weeks on the House Judiciary Committee

In the first three weeks of the legislative session, the Judiciary Committee has taken to the highways. We have been working on a number of bills related to the safety of Vermont’s roads and to helping Vermonters retain or regain their driving privileges so they can be productive members of their communities.

H.560, which both the Transportation Committee and Judiciary Committee are considering, would strengthen a number of highway safety laws. One of the primary provisions of this lengthy bill would expand the use of ignition interlock devices, which are breathalyzers for an individual’s vehicle. Since 2011, the use of interlock devices has prevented 6000 incidents of driving while impaired. Current law, however, contains certain disincentives to the device’s broader use. The bill would remove these disincentives so that more individuals would drive with a Restricted Driver’s License, using an interlock device to ensure sober driving, rather than facing a license suspension.

In addition, H.560 would provide that any driver who is in a crash resulting in serious bodily injury or fatality will be deemed to have given implied consent to a blood test to determine if the individual was driving while impaired. This provision is likely to suffer the same fate as the implied consent provision in H.527, a bill that includes such a provision to assist in the enforcement of Vermont’s laws banning texting and the use of handhelds while driving.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Bernard v. Minnesota, which will likely address the constitutionality of implied consent provisions such as those in H.527 and H.560. Upon learning of this while taking up H.527, the Committee decided to table consideration of the implied consent concept, although other aspects of the distracted driving bill, including some strengthening of penalties, should receive further consideration.

The Committee has also been examining the issue of driving with a suspended license. License suspension contributes to poverty in Vermont. Losing one’s license undermines the ability to access jobs, housing, and resources, particularly in rural areas. Sixty percent of suspended Vermont driver’s licenses are suspended for failure to pay judgments on traffic violations. Presumably, the legislature intended to encourage payment of fines with laws that suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay. This intent clearly has not been fulfilled, as there are currently about 34,000 license suspensions due to failure to pay traffic tickets. These suspensions reflect a driver’s inability to pay rather than whether that driver can safely operate a vehicle on our public roads.

We are addressing this situation in H.571, which would cut traffic fines for low-income Vermonters in half; reduce the duration of suspensions and eliminate indefinite suspensions for conduct that does not relate to unsafe driving; limit the use of license suspensions for offenses unrelated to driving; and eliminate license reinstatement fees. So that these changes to the law are revenue neutral, the bill would add a surcharge to all traffic tickets. In any event, enactment of these provisions should reduce costs to law enforcement as well as to courts. Most importantly, however, the bill would reduce the number of drivers who have suspended licenses. It would allow individuals whose offense is unrelated to highway safety to retain their driving privileges, ability to earn a living, and opportunity to contribute to the economy.

Judiciary has also been reviewing metrics on state court performance relative to population-level outcomes. We have heard testimony from the court administrator related to caseload, throughput, and other statistics that show how the courts are doing in providing Vermonters access to justice. In short, the court system is currently challenged by the collateral consequences associated with opiate addiction, primarily in the Superior Court family division. The recent appointment of four additional judges and the implementation of a new case management system should alleviate these challenges.

The courts, and the Judiciary Committee that oversees the judicial system, sit at the end of the pipeline, dealing with the consequences of societal problems. The Secretary of Education provided an enlightening presentation to the Committee about how our schools are trying to deal with those problems early, so that the courts do not have to address them later. She explained how the State is working to reduce the incidence of suspensions and expulsions from school, which, if unaddressed, can become a pipeline to prison. Investment in initiatives such as early education and the use of restorative justice in schools can reduce the number of individuals entering this pipeline and reduce the costs of the court system.