A drive to help the poor get back behind the wheel
MONTPELIER >> Zia Gbau, who came to Vermont as a refugee from the Republic of Congo, suffered a serious stroke last year and was unable to work for several months. Without money, his truck fell into disrepair, and he got two tickets for an expired inspection sticker.
The 33-year-old couldn't pay the $500 fine, and that put him in the position of driving with a suspended license. "I have a daughter I have to drop at daycare," said Gbau, who lives in Colchester.
Vermont has been trying to slow down the traffic ticket treadmill on which people like Gbau can find themselves. A pilot project to let suspended drivers pay off reduced fines over time and get their licenses back was launched in a few counties a year ago, and legislation up in the House this week would take it statewide.
California and Washington state have run similar programs. Kansas gave suspended drivers a chance in December to sign up for restricted licenses, which would allow them to drive to work, school, medical and other necessary appointments.
The treadmill speeds up when the driver starts piling up tickets for driving with a suspended license, a common phenomenon in a rural state like Vermont, where public transit is limited and people need to get to work.
"People who can't comply with the law are getting deeper and deeper into trouble with fines, interest on fines, all sorts of stuff," said Margaret Stapleton, a lawyer with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago. A police stop for driving with a suspended license "can land people in jail easily," she said.
On the "driver restoration days," in Vermont so far, people in Gbau's situation can report to a state office, have their fines reduced, get on a payment plan and get their licenses restored.
The Vermont House bill calls for a one-time driver restoration period from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30. But if it gets over to the Senate, it likely will run into a key lawmaker who has big reservations about it.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he had been hearing from prosecutors, police chiefs and town officials in his district that they don't like the driver amnesty idea.
"I have real concerns about the state jumping in and telling our state's attorneys, our local law enforcement, you know, what to do, rather than them making the decision," Sears said in an interview.
One question Sears said he had been hearing: "Is this fair to those that are paying off those fines and working through the problem?"
Valerio said reducing fines and putting people on payment plans actually improves revenue collection in places where the techniques have been tried. Partial collection is better than none, he said.
The House bill also takes aim at another part of the ticket treadmill: getting charged with driving with a suspended license when the underlying cause of the suspension had nothing to do with driving.
The House Judiciary Committee heard from one 27-year-old woman who had never been able to get a driver's license in Vermont because she had failed to pay a fine for underage tobacco use when she was 13.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said young people from low-income backgrounds are especially vulnerable to having fines compound and stay on the books unpaid for years.
"For you and me if you get a S300 ticket we don't like it, but if you're 16 and you get a $300 ticket, it might as well be $300,000," Gilbert said.
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