Reducing the Impact of Suspended Drivers Licenses

In a rural state like Vermont, access to transportation is critical for economic prosperity, public safety, and healthy communities. Many Vermonters lack access to a vehicle or public transportation, but a less obvious barrier exists in the form of driver’s license suspensions.

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 59,000 license suspensions, many of the suspensions due to failure to pay traffic tickets.

Too often, individuals who fail to pay are unable to pay.  In such cases, even when their underlying offense was unrelated to unsafe driving, their licenses are suspended.  License suspension results in further debt burdens, including a fee that must be paid to get their driver’s license reinstated after the conclusion of the suspension period.  They are either hindered from getting to and from work or to job interviews or they are stuck with taking the risk of driving with a suspended license.  If they take the latter course, they may be caught and charged with the additional violation of Driving with a License Suspended, which comes with additional fines.  In such a situation, individuals may become trapped in a cycle of poverty and law breaking.  They are subjected to debt that they are unable to pay as well as the continued lack of a driver’s license, further obstructing their ability to gain or keep meaningful employment.

In short, license suspension is a contributing factor to poverty in Vermont.  As a 2014 Vermont Child Poverty Council Report stated, the lack of a driver’s license can cause “a crushing debt for a parent struggling to make ends meet.”  It undermines one’s ability to access jobs, housing, and resources, particularly in rural areas.

Recognizing this problem, Chittenden County States Attorney T.J. Donovan organized a “Restoration Day” in March 2015, during which individuals in northwestern Vermont could get their licenses back for a fraction of the amount they owed.  In December, a “Restoration Day” was held in Windsor County. These efforts helped highlight as well as alleviate the problem, as hundreds of individuals took advantage of the opportunity to regain their driving privileges.  The huge participation in these programs made it clear for purposes of geographic justice that a statewide legislative resolution was needed.

To that end, last spring the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees requested that the Department of Transportation convene a task force to study the issue and recommend solutions.  During the first week of this legislative session, the House Judiciary Committee received the task force report, which not only highlighted license suspension as one factor affecting poverty, but also examined the costs to Vermont of administering license suspension.  The Committee heard from a number of witnesses who described the extent of the problem.

The legislature enacted a bill, H.571, that lowers the obstacles for individuals to have their driving licenses reinstated; reduces the duration of suspensions and eliminates suspensions for conduct that does not relate to unsafe driving; and limits the use of license suspensions for offenses unrelated to driving. Specifically, the bill addresses three time frames.

First, it clears the slate of suspended licenses that were based on traffic tickets that predate July 1, 1990.  These tickets were issued in an era when traffic violations were considered misdemeanors.  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.  The Attorney General has sought dismissal of all the approximately 20,000 charges underlying these suspensions.  H.571 instructs the Department of Motor Vehicles to reinstate these suspended licenses.

Second, the bill establishes a three-month restoration period from September 1, 2016 to November 30, 2016.  Individuals with licenses suspended between July 1, 1990 and July 1, 2012 can apply for restoration.  They must pay $30.00 on each underlying ticket, either all at once or pursuant to a payment plan under which they will pay up to $100.00 per month toward unpaid tickets (often these individuals have many unpaid tickets).  Once they have paid or started a payment plan, their driver’s license will be automatically reinstated without their having to pay a reinstatement fee.

Finally, the bill establishes a path forward.  H.571 eliminates license suspension as a penalty for certain non-driving related infractions, including the underage possession of tobacco.  Suspension is also eliminated as a consequence for failure to pay fines on non-moving traffic violations, such as failure to have an inspection sticker, and as a consequence for failure to appear at a civil contempt hearing initiated by the Judicial Bureau for purposes of collecting unpaid fines.  The Judicial Bureau will use other methods to collect any fine owing, including through tax refund offsets and referral to collection agencies.

The bill distinguishes between violations such as the foregoing that do not relate to safe driving and those that do.  Thus, nonpayment of fines for moving violations that carry points on a driver’s license can still lead to license suspension.  The bill modifies these suspensions.  Upon failure to timely pay a fine, an individual’s license would be suspended for 30 days, rather than the 120 days under current law.  The driver’s license will be reinstated after the 30-day period or upon payment of the fine, whichever occurs earlier, and upon payment of a reinstatement fee.  If the fine remains unpaid after the suspension, the Judicial Bureau will use the other methods mentioned above to collect any outstanding fines.

H.571 also stiffens the penalty if an individual drives while under suspension. If a person is caught driving without a license a second time within a two-year period, he or she may be charged with a misdemeanor.

Recognizing that indigent drivers may have difficulty paying fines, the bill also contains provisions to ensure that such drivers know they are able to seek a reduction in a fine while not contesting the underlying traffic violation.  Finally, the bill requires a report related to the statewide driver restoration initiative and reports over a five-year period to allow an evaluation of the impacts of the license suspension provisions.

The driver’s license suspension bill should improve the safety of our roads.  It will allow law enforcement to deploy its resources more effectively to address dangerous driving offenses rather than policing what has proved to be an ineffective payment collection tool.  More importantly, it will reduce the number of drivers who have suspended license, allowing individuals whose offenses are unrelated to highway safety to retain their driving privileges, ability to earn a living, and opportunity to contribute to the economy.