Published May 31, 2016
by Kelsey Neubauer
BURLINGTON — Vermont has become the third state to enact changes in its laws to help low-income drivers regain their licenses after a suspension.
Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law Tuesday that will give amnesty to some Vermonters with suspended licenses.
The law will expunge tickets at no cost for those who have a noncriminal license suspension from before 1990. Those who have had their license suspended due to an unpaid traffic ticket dating from between 1991 and 2012 will be able to pay off their fines for $30.
The hope is to “correct a financial injustice” that lingers over those who cannot pay the high cost of lifting a license suspension, Shumlin said at the signing, where he was joined by lawmakers and state officials outside the Costello courthouse.
The suspension makes it difficult to complete daily tasks such as driving to work or a meeting, he said.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, sponsored the bill. “Justice wasn’t being served. There was enormous challenges and barriers to their everyday lives,” she said of low-income drivers.
In addition, many of the estimated 50,000 Vermonters who have suspended licenses and cannot afford to pay fines still drive illegally, Shumlin said.
In 2015, Vermonters flocked to two “driver restoration days,” when they could pay off old tickets for $20 to bring their licenses back into good standing.
Discussions began in early September surrounding what legislative work could be done to lift suspensions at less cost, after seeing the turnout for the restoration days. That work resulted in the passage of H.571, the law Shumlin signed Tuesday.
The law is not without opposition. When the bill passed the House Ways and Means Committee in March, Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, voted against it, saying it would be unfair to those who were “paying their bills.”
During the signing, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan said others have asked whether this is simply “giving an unfair handout.”
He responded by telling of a man who was waiting in line during one of the driver restoration days.
Donovan said that when the man was asked by a member of the press if he thought he was receiving a handout, the man responded, “You never know when you are going to need a second chance.”
Shumlin addressed criticism that the law would put unsafe drivers back on the road by saying it will actually give many the opportunity to drive safely. Once licenses are no longer suspended, there will be a lower rate of driving without licences, allowing for more insured and legal drivers on the roads, he said.
Motor Vehicles Commissioner Robert Ide said the law does not provide amnesty to people with criminal traffic violations, only those with noncriminal offenses.
Although the DMV believes it is important to address safety hazards on the road, such as speeding, not wearing seatbelts and using technology or impairing substances while driving, there needs to be a way to aid those who have noncriminal offenses, he said.
Donovan said Vermont follows Washington and California in implementing a law to ease costs for people with suspended licenses.