Judiciary Committee Update

I am planning on posting an update regarding the work of the Judiciary Committee every two weeks.  The focus on traffic safety issues may seem a bit redundant with some of my other recent posts, but that is what the Committee has been focusing on.

In the past two weeks, the Judiciary Committee has continued its focus on the state’s roadways. We have taken extensive testimony on H.571 related to driver’s license suspensions and have been narrowing and focusing the questions we need to address to move a bill to the floor. The committee is dealing with three areas.

First, we are looking to clear the slate of suspended licenses that were based on traffic tickets that predate 1990. These tickets were issued in an era when traffic violations were considered misdemeanors. We have learned that most of the tickets underlying the suspensions were in a fire, doused with water, and scattered to various locations throughout the state. The bottom line is that there is no way of really knowing why individuals with these pre-1990 suspensions lost their licenses. So, we are paving the way to reinstate all licenses suspended solely due to these pre-1990 violations.

Second, we are trying to address the large number of licenses that have been suspended since 1990 due to certain non-traffic violations or failure to pay a fine. We are trying to find a balance between getting people’s licenses back to them while still finding a way to collect at least some of the outstanding fines.

Finally, we are trying to establish a path forward. The Committee generally agrees that license suspension is not an effective way to get many people to pay their fines – 28,000 are suspended for failure to pay and many continue to drive. Nor should it be a punishment for certain non-driving offenses, such as underage tobacco use. But we also want to make sure that the Judicial Bureau has sufficient means to collect fines. We want to carefully consider what combination of payment mechanisms and incentives will best allow the Judicial Bureau to collect the fines owed while getting Vermonters back driving legally. We will be spending additional time over the next couple weeks trying to strike the appropriate balances.

The Committee has also been taking testimony regarding DUI laws. Our primary focus has been to consider ways to increase the usage of ignition interlock devices to decrease impaired driving by those who have been charged with a DUI. One of the issues that we are grappling with is how to ensure that such devices are available to all who could benefit from them, not just those who can readily afford the installation and monthly fee for the device.

The Judiciary Committee has also addressed some non-driving concerns. We have considered issues related to victim notification (H.533) and a victims right to be heard at change of plea hearings (H.675). These two bills have been combined and will likely hit the floor in the coming week as H.533.

The Committee’s oversight of the state courts has also been on our agenda. We heard from the State Auditor and Court representatives regarding collections of fees related to the provision of public defenders to indigent defendants. We also reviewed proposals to streamline certain appeals and other court procedures.