States Find a Path to Help Poor Residents Restore Suspended Licenses

Vermonters whose driver’s licenses have been suspended for failure to pay fines and fees may find a reprieve this fall following the May passage of a bill by the state Legislature. 

The bill, H. 571, aims to alleviate some of the financial burden that outstanding traffic tickets and resulting license suspensions can pose, particularly for low-income residents in the rural state, where there are few public transit options and people rely on driving to get to work or school. 

“What we’ve discovered is that tickets can add up fairly quickly,” said Vermont state Rep. Chip Conquest. “It takes, really, nothing to have a ticket that can approach $200 and, for a lot of people, that’s just not something they can pay within the amount of the time they would (need to) under the present system before their license would be suspended.”

For a three-month period beginning Sept. 1, Vermonters whose licenses have been suspended for failure to pay traffic fines and fees can pay off tickets issued before July 1, 2012, for $30 each. 

Tickets issued prior to 1990 will be dismissed altogether. People whose outstanding tickets were issued after the July 1, 2012, cutoff date will be able to sign up for payment plans to pay those tickets off over time at a rate of $30 per month for a single ticket or a maximum payment of $100 per month for multiple outstanding tickets. 

Vermont officials estimate that 56,000 individuals have a suspended license statewide.

According to a state Department of Transportation task force, license suspensions resulting from the failure to pay fines and fees can result in a cycle that makes it more difficult for poor residents to pay off tickets by making it harder for them to gain or maintain employment needed to pay the fines.

“People living in poverty cannot afford traffic fines and end up on the (driver’s license suspension) treadmill,” the task force said in a report of its recommendations to the state Legislature in December 2015.

The bill expands statewide a successful driver restoration pilot program that was offered in two counties last year, which had a massive response according to Conquest. “That ought to be available to all Vermonters,” he said.

In addition to offering reduced fines and payment plan options for outstanding tickets, the bill eliminates license suspension as a penalty for certain non-driving infractions such as underage possession of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. 

“We want to get them into diversion,” said Conquest, “but suspending their license didn’t seem to be the best way to do that.”

Driving infractions that result in the accumulation of points, indicating a driver presented a danger to others on the roadway, can still result in a suspended license, however.

Vermont isn’t the only state looking to reduce the economic barriers of license suspensions on low-income residents. 

In 2009, Kansas lawmakers passed a bill that allowed drivers with a suspended license to obtain a restricted license to drive to work, school or other approved destinations while they paid off outstanding fines over time. The law automatically expired due to a sunset clause in 2012 but was reinstated the following year; last year, the state began offering the restricted license application online.

A bill passed by the Michigan Legislature in May would allow circuit judges set aside revoked, suspended or restricted licenses with certain conditions. 

Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines when a payment plan is established. A report issued in April by Back on the Road California found that suspended licenses disproportionately affect the state’s poor, black and Latino communities and that traffic fines can quickly escalate when they go unpaid. The report cited as an example a base traffic fine of $100 that can compound to $490 when all court fees are factored in, and that can rise to as much as $815 if the initial payment deadline is missed.

“We must restore common sense to our justice system,” said California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who introduced the bill, in an April 12 press release. “This legislation stops a practice that we know is an excessively severe penalty for simply missing a court date or failing to pay a fine on time and gives offenders a chance to make amends without pulling the rug out from under them.”

Back in Vermont, Conquest said he hopes the state’s new bill, once signed into law, will have a positive impact on the state’s low-income drivers. Gov. Peter Shumlin requested legislation that ensures Vermonters don’t lose their driver’s licenses due to non-traffic related violations in his 2016 state-of-the-state address and is expected to sign the bill into law, according to Conquest.

“All of us make mistakes—sometimes we go a little over the speed limit or whatever—and if you get a ticket that you simply can’t afford to pay in one month, which is the length of time you have to pay it, then you’re going to lose your license under the current system,” said Conquest. 

“This pushed us to do something different, to look at the system and change it so that going forward we’re holding people accountable, both in terms of fines and suspensions if they have points, but we’re doing it in a way that allows people to continue to work and get to their appointments and take their kids places,” he said. “That just seems to make a lot of sense to me and does recognize that some people simply can’t come up with the money, at least in the short-term.”