Shumlin looks to curb driver’s license suspensions

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is calling on lawmakers to eliminate the more than 70 non-driving-related reasons a person can have his driver’s license suspended in Vermont.

During his State of the State Address, Shumlin called on lawmakers to make it easier for Vermonters to get a suspended license reinstated, and to cut the number of reasons a license can be suspended in the first place.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“Why are we creating a permanent economic disability and making it so difficult for people who want to improve their lives?” Shumlin asked the General Assembly. “I ask you to make driver restoration days unnecessary by passing legislation that ensures non-traffic-related offenses don’t lead to Vermonters losing their ability to get to work or drop their kids off at school.”

According to the Driver’s License Suspension Task Force Report provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee in December, 59,000 people in Vermont – approximately 10 percent of the state’s population – have suspended driver’s licenses.

Approximately 34,000 of those suspensions are due to nonpayment of fines. However, 2,200 are for underage tobacco use, while an additional 4,100 are for underage alcohol or marijuana possession or use.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when we take away people’s driver’s licenses for non-driver-related offenses like underage tobacco purchases, that we end up with four times as many Vermonters, we end up four times as many Vermonters with suspended licenses than we have in our state college system,” Shumlin said.

According to the task force report, there are currently 74 non-driving infractions that can lead to the suspension of a driver’s license.

A 2015 report from the Vermont Child Poverty Council called license suspensions “a crushing debt for a parent struggling to make ends meet.”

Christopher Curtis (courtesy photo)

Christopher Curtis (courtesy photo)

“What was intended to be a deterrent to bad driving behavior should not be a permanent economic disability,” said Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid. “The goal should be not to snare people in a cycle where they get ticket after ticket after ticket after ticket.”

James Haslam, executive director of Rights and Democracy, concurred with Curtis.

James Haslam

James Haslam

“In a rural state, it is especially critical for people to be able to drive to access their basic needs and get to work,” Haslam said. “Suspending drivers’ licenses because they can’t afford to pay a fee creates more poverty in our communities. This is a great example of a public policy change that could prevent unnecessary hardships for working and low-income people in Vermont.”

The task force report offers several recommendations, such as cutting in half the amount of fines a person with suspended license owes the state and eliminating reinstatement fees.

Officials with the Department of Motor Vehicles did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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