Suspended Licenses and Big, Big Fines

| June 04, 2014
  • michael tonn

A casual observer wouldn't know that Donna Robinson was breaking the law as she drove her purple PT Cruiser in Royalton on a May morning.

But John Helfant is not a casual observer. He is a sergeant with the Vermont State Police, and he knew that Robinson's driver's license was suspended. Helfant stopped Robinson, took her to the closest police barracks and issued her a citation to appear in court for driving with her license suspended (DLS) — a misdemeanor.

It wasn't the first time Robinson had been charged with that particular crime. Or the second time. Or even the tenth.

It was her 17th offense.

After state police put out a news release detailing Robinson's repeated offenses, she gained some public notoriety. And the fact that Robinson has two DUI convictions complicates her situation. But her cyclical experience with DLS convictions is far from an outlier, and it may say more about the criminal justice system's handling of troubled drivers than it says about her.

Roughly 18,000 Vermonters have suspended driver's licenses, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. And a large proportion of those suspensions are the result of nonviolent offenses: roughly 60 percent are for failure to pay traffic tickets, and another 24 percent are for accruing points for traffic violations.

Many defendants, officials say, get caught in a loop: They rack up hundreds of dollars in fines they can't pay, making it impossible to regain their licenses. Especially in a rural state where public transportation is limited, people can't afford not to drive — nor can they afford the multiple DLS violations when they do.

Robinson, 32, says she is stuck in the DLS cycle. During her most recent arrest, she was trying to get to her job as a cashier at a Randolph gas station, located 10 miles from her trailer home. She estimates that she has paid more than $8,000 in fines for her various transgressions, including $600 in February for her 16th DLS violation.

"Most of the time I've been caught, it's been going to work or picking up the kids, going to an appointment," Robinson said. "Driving becomes something I have to do. I didn't go, 'Screw it, I'm going to drive.' I have no choice but to break the rules. I had to take these chances."

Critics of DLS enforcement say that many repeat offenders are not necessarily dangerous — they just can't afford to become legal drivers. Fines, surcharges and reinstatement fees can run up to several hundred dollars.

"The bottom line is, DLS really isn't a criminal issue. It's a poverty issue," Vermont defender general Matt Valerio said. "People can't afford to pay their fines. If you can't pay your fines, you end up in the same place."

Robinson is not the only one with multiple DLS arrests. Officials say they have seen several defendants with more than 30 DLS violations. Last year, the Vermont Judicial Bureau, which handles civil traffic cases, found more than 5,700 people guilty of committing DLS.

But you don't need statistics to see how the Vermont judicial system is awash in DLS cases — they are among the most prevalent charges on courthouse dockets.

Policy makers have long struggled with the snowball effects of DLS law. More than a decade ago, legislators did away with criminal penalties for DLS altogether. But in 2006, after law-enforcement officers said drivers were simply ignoring their tickets, lawmakers passed rules making the sixth and each subsequent DLS a crime punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and two years in prison.

Then, as budgetary pressures mounted and judicial dockets swelled, lawmakers in 2011 studied whether certain nonviolent offenses could be handled outside the courtroom, with DLS law at the center of their agenda.

In May 2012, lawmakers passed a bill which encouraged civil DLS suspensions to be routed through Vermont's Court Diversion Program, where drivers are essentially put on a payment plan and often allowed to regain their licenses before paying the full amount owed. The goals were to stop civil violations from mounting into criminal cases, to unburden the judicial system and to reduce the number of suspended licenses.

Since July 2013, 300 people have been able to pay their fines incrementally and regain their licenses through the Diversion program. Robinson was one of them, regaining her license after paying more than $200 a month in back fines for several months, only to lose it again when she was arrested for DUI in December.

Officials say they hope the program will grow, but acknowledge that progress has been slow, noting the need for additional staff to handle more cases. "The program, while well intended, doesn't have sufficient resources to do the job," Valerio said. "The programs aren't fully functional."

Elected state's attorneys have a great deal of latitude in DLS cases, and some, like Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, have taken steps to get drivers legal rather than punish them.

Most times, after Donovan receives a criminal DLS charge from police, he delays filing it for 90 days, advising defendants to pay off their existing fines and have their license reinstated. If they do, he drops the charge.

"I don't know how successful the system is, because we keep seeing it," Donovan said. "I tend to think the criminal courts are ill-suited to deal with this offense."

Robinson agrees. For now, she said, she is relying on friends to give her rides to work, or has paid people to ferry her around. But it's not a permanent fix, she said.

"I know I'm guilty. I did something wrong," Robinson said. "But I could be successful."


Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

You ask what we would we do? Well I know what we would not do...we would not drive drunk in the first place, and if given a second chance, we would not AGAIN drive drunk.

So what would we do? stay home or where we are when we drink. That's what we would do

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Posted by Lori Belding on 06/09/2014 at 11:00 AM

I find it yes amusing anyone who has no idea really except what they see or hear to base there opinion on.i never asked for sympathy as further more ive always been held accountable.i never once said i shouldnt be however the cyle is as it yes i thought about a byclce but that can be considerd a moving violation as well being id have to take interstate to work..i look at all oppinions and see there side but i sted fast to my reasonings.xcept i dont see anyone from opinions of a duller nature comming up with ideas of positive nature to fix a overgrowing issue.remeber there are people yes that hurt people as i have not and am not any better with my dui however ive payed anfd have volunteerd my positives to helping mysel and while anyone who can sit and judg what r u doing . To offer a possitive to back ur sure itd be interesting..i think my positive could be helping others get there license those who look to better there lives.i advocate proudly cause i know both sides and never once said i was proud of my mistakes but i am able to succeed and help others..i again askvwhat will u do..besides share opinion...from ur high horse..oh wait maybe i could gt a horse ...hmm good thinking..ty all for ur comments..

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Posted by donna robinson on 06/08/2014 at 11:52 AM

NONE of these people got parking tickets, they got moving violations! Speeding, unsafe passing, DUI, running a light....all of which can kill someone ELSE! I don't feel even an once of sympathy.

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Posted by Lori Belding on 06/07/2014 at 7:59 PM

Two DUIs and "oh, we stand corrected, only 14 DLSes"?!!! I think WE are victims of HER system!

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Posted by Heather on 06/07/2014 at 11:11 AM

Another one who thinks rules should not apply to them because they are inconvenient for them. There is a word I use repeatedly, it is a simple word. ACCOUNTABILITY. In short it means being held accountable for your own actions. Your excuses are heard but you chose the path of first not obeying the laws. And now you do not feel that you should have to be punished any further when you chose to keep breaking the rules. Quit your crying. I was in roughly the same boat but I wasn't crying. I am an adult!! I accepted the consequences, did what I was needed to do. I didn't live near any bus route so I had to make arrangements for any and all parts of my life. With my kids and work.

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Posted by John Pruss on 06/07/2014 at 10:07 AM

Was starting to feel some sympathy for the cycle Ms. Robinson has found herself in except her most recent offense is DUI. All sympathy gone. Sorry, not sorry. She endangers others. If she genuinely wanted to clean up her record she would be doing everything possible to demonstrate she is a responsible driver. DUI is nothing but selfish, self centered, irresponsible, and criminal.

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Posted by Ronnie on 06/07/2014 at 9:14 AM

Got her license back and then got a DUI???? get a bicyle

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Posted by Pamela Simmons on 06/06/2014 at 5:50 PM

Howdy y'all

Regarding “Suspended licenses...” I offer this cautionary tale from Texas. Surcharges and the point system came late to Texas. Part of the (ahem) unique logic of the GOP not to raise taxes – they enacted such scheme to raise revenue from traffic offenders. And succeeded only in proving the failure of regressive taxation. Millions of Texans were unable to pay the (ahem-not-a-tax) new punitive administrative fees which were often far greater than the also assessed court fines. The collection mechanism of suspending licenses only worsened the problem by then adding to the number of uninsured drivers. In 2011 the Leg enacted § 708.158 TEX. TRANSPORTATION CODE which exempted the indigent from surcharges. And several other laws (e.g., Art. 45.0491 TEX. CODE CRIMINAL PROCEDURE) expressly gives Texas judges authority to waive or reduce fines for the impoverished (these repeals thanks to an even more red Tea-party leaning legislature – thus evidencing a failed policy so spectacular even the wing-nuts conceded it didn't work). I'm seventh generation Texan but I'll be the first to admit the Texas criminal justice system operates as close to third-world as you'll find in this nation. Thus Vermonters should hang their heads in shame (i.e., your poor are no doubt paying with welfare benefits mostly intended for their children). More inexplicable: Hardship drivers licenses (restricted to essential needs) have been available in Texas for more than half a century. Vermont's statutory scheme doesn't explicitly create restricted-to-basic-needs drivers licenses – but the Commissioner already has the authority 23 V.S.A. § 612 and could promulgate rules which could be dovetailed with Vermont's existing probation laws 28 V.S.A. § 252. Perhaps instead of trying to bleed cash from the poor per the practice of prosecutor Donovan in 90 days – the better approach might be court ordered community service, restricted rather than suspended licenses, and other common-sense orders likely to bring the poor in Vermont into compliance (ahem... the purpose of your own probation statute).


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Posted by Mark on 06/06/2014 at 2:51 AM

For dmv records show i have 14 dls not 17 not any better but im being charged with 17 of couse this i will fight being its my 14th dls ...

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Posted by donna robinson on 06/05/2014 at 10:59 PM

Thank you mark this articl speakes glad finally someone asked one of us many repeat affnders or as its been publically named ceral affendets.i guess they could have come up with a different title had the investigatd in depth or merly do as u get the facts behind the dls affender. I am going through crash and vounceling and will yet again. File for my license .thank you again 7 days n mark for the inside to dls with a single of five ..

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Posted by donna robinson on 06/05/2014 at 10:54 PM
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