A year and a half ago more than a thousand Vermonters turned out on a chilly March day in Burlington to get square with the law, pay their traffic fines at reduced rates and get back on the road safely, legally, and affordably. A bright tapestry of Vermonters from all walks of life waited patiently for a second chance to reinstate their driver's licenses. People came from five counties – one all the way from West Virginia – for a "Driver Restoration Day" project initiated by Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan.
That day, about 1,200 people became eligible to have their driving privileges restored. And, the state took in more than $150,000 that it never would otherwise have collected. The throng of people seeking relief demonstrated the need, and the cooperating agencies showed government making a real difference in the day-to-day lives of Vermonters. The biggest knock on the program was that it wasn't available to all Vermonters statewide. That will now change.
The scope of the license suspension problem is staggering. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles about 60,000 Vermonters have suspended licenses. More than half of those are simply for failure to pay a fine. Most of those are low-income Vermonters who simply cannot afford to pay and then find themselves in a downward spiral of new tickets and fines following the original infraction.
The system is broken in a way that stems directly from its failure to recognize ability to pay. Nobody likes to get a traffic ticket. But, affluent, or middle-income earners have the means to pay their fines and move on with their lives. For poor people, the same fine can be a crushing debt leaving them forced to drive illegally to keep a job, feed their families, or get their kids to and from school. They end up with ticket after ticket piling up. As a percentage of income, the old system discriminates against the poor by eating up a greater share of their income than drivers who are better off. Piling on additional tickets only adds insult to economic injury.
Fortunately, lawmakers and the Shumlin Administration saw the need to reform the system. They acted decisively to craft a "driver restoration" law that builds on the success of the one day event pioneered by Donovan. The new law dismisses some very old tickets, reduces fines for others, and allows the traffic courts to consider income in setting fines in some cases in the future. It also eliminates suspension as a penalty for minor non-driving related infractions (like underage tobacco consumption). If successful, the backlog of license suspensions will be cleared and thousands of Vermonters will be freed from the "poverty trap" of exclusion from our roads and a system that was levying ever increasing fines on those least able to pay them.
Here is how the new law works:
Judgments for civil fines (the program does not apply to criminal DUI charges) owed prior to 1990 will simply be expunged or dismissed automatically.
Judgments for fines owed prior to July of 2012 can be paid off at $30 per ticket between September 1st through November 30th of 2016. The application form is available online at www.vermontjudiciary.org, at the Vermont Judicial Bureau in White River Junction, or at DMV offices in Bennington, Montpelier, Newport, Rutland, South Burlington and Springfield. Completed applications can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the Vermont Judicial Bureau at PO Box 607, White River Jct., Vt. 05001.
Other tickets can be paid off with repayment plans allowing flexibility to pay them off over time in smaller increments, or by asking the traffic court to take income into account when setting the fines.
Some people might argue that Vermonters who get a ticket and can't pay don't deserve a break. But many of these suspended drivers have spent years subject to multiple stops, or even arrest, as a consequence. At some point the punishment doesn't fit the crime. It offends our basic sense of fairness to have two systems of justice: one for those who can pay and one for those who cannot. And, this is a public safety issue. Many Vermonters with suspended licenses are driving anyway: to keep their jobs, care for their kids, or meet other community obligations. The public interest is better served when all drivers are fully licensed and insured.
The new law is not a free pass. All drivers remain obligated to pay fines and are subject to a "points system" for infractions. So, repeat offenders are still subject to suspension for failure to comply with our traffic laws. But, flexibility in the system will put low-income drivers on more equal footing with others to be able to simply pay their fines and move on with their lives.
Lawmakers, Gov. Shumlin, and leaders like T.J. Donovan deserve credit for taking an important step toward fixing a broken system, promoting public safety, and helping Vermonters get back on the road responsibly and affordably.
Christopher J. Curtis is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and advocated for passage of the new law.