From the “Are You Kidding Me” Department

royalty-free-driver-clipart-illustration-442184On the WCAX news tonight they reported about “a pilot Driver Restoration Day” to be held in March where people who have had their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets can get their license back by paying some small fraction of the fine. According to the press release from Governor Shumlin’s office, about 22,000 Vermonters have had their license suspended for “failure to pay overdue traffic fees and fines.”

Given that, in a rural state like Vermont, being able to drive can be critical for people to gain and keep employment this sounds at first like this would help people, but there are a number of issues that left me scratching my head.

  • While the governor’s press release claims that this “situation disproportionately affects lower income Vermonters,” when Governor Shumlin was questioned by a WCAX reporter as to how many lower income Vermonters are actually affected, he had no answer. This leads me to believe that the statement was made more for political reasons than as a factual statement. I should also note that the Shumlin administration also apparently has no idea how large an amount is actually owed by these 22,000 people. One would think these sorts of facts would be important before embarking on such a program.
  • From a simple law and order perspective, if you are going to have a program where people can avoid the penalties for certain behaviors simply because it is a hardship for them to pay that penalty, why have the penalties in the first place? As I pointed out in my post “Protests, Public Interest and Police Discretion,” if the law in question is something you can decide to waive the penalty for for some people at some times, why have it on the books in the first place? If it is a necessary law, why should you be letting people off simply because the penalty causes an inconvenience especially given that the inconvenience is part of the deterrent effect of the law?
  • Also in the law and order department, what does such a program say about equal treatment before the law? Does you ability to pay a penalty or not determine whether you should be subject to the law, or that you should be penalized differently for the same violation?
  • During the broadcast, a young woman was shown speaking about how wonderful this program would be for her. She stated she lost her license when she was 13 due to a “tobacco charge.” Which brings to my mind two crucial questions. How can you lose your license at age 13 when you have to be 15 before you can even get your learner’s permit? Secondly, how can a “smoking violation,” and here I am assuming she was caught trying to buy cigarettes while under age, affect your driver’s license, assuming you had one?
  • One of the claims made is that allowing people to get their licenses back so that they can drive legally “is a public safety issue. By getting people reinstatement ready, we will enhance our public safety by allowing people to drive legally and to be fully insured.” I question that this will actually be the result. A bit later in the press release, a supporter of the law is quoted saying, “For many families on public assistance, a $200 ticket might as well be $2,000; they simply cannot afford to pay,” I think it unlikely that someone who cannot afford to pay a $200 ticket will have the money to insure their vehicle. Thus people might get their license back but only until the next time they get stopped for driving without insurance, which may well be the offense that cost them their license in the first place.

For the most part the governor’s press release seems to be nothing more than fluff. Something to point to and say, “See we care about poor people,” without actually providing any evidence that it will do anything for them.

The press release did however have something I completely approve of. Apparently the legislature has passed a law that allows people who have outstanding fines which they find difficult to pay to work with the court to reduce their fines by performing community service. Such a program would maintain the deterrent effect of the laws, assuming such laws are actually necessary in the first place, but give people of limited means a way to actually pay the penalty their behavior engendered.

[Update March 3, 2015 – Since I wrote the above, there has been a lot more coverage on this idea. Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, the driving force behind this trial program, is quoted as saying that “This was my bright idea. If it goes well, great. If it doesn’t go well, you know, I’ll take the responsibility for it.” This sounds like he is taking responsibility for the program, but what is the criteria by which they determine if  it goes well or not? Will they be tracking these people and be able to say six months or a year down the road whether these people have lost their license again or received further tickets, especially for driving without insurance or registration? I have not seen where anyone has asked these questions.]