Advocates say traffic fine reforms would reduce economic barriers
Lawmakers are considering legislation that would reinstate driving privileges to thousands of Vermonters whose licenses were suspended due to failure to pay a traffic fine. The legislation would reduce fines for people who are living at the poverty level or who receive state benefits.
Vermont’s system as it currently works is “essentially criminalizing poverty,” Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis told legislators last week.
Fines for minor traffic violations are often out of reach for low-income Vermonters, Curtis said. When one fine goes unpaid, driving privileges are suspended, but that person might continue to drive to get to work and pick up children from school, he said. If caught, the driver is charged with additional violations.
The fines snowball and can run into the hundreds of dollars, creating a barrier for low-income Vermonters who live in rural areas and need car transportation for daily life.
Curtis said he had a client who was sanctioned by the Reach Up program, a benefits program that helps low-income families, because she was unable to get to appointments due to a license suspension.
“You have folks that are trying to meet their obligations, do the right thing, but if their license is suspended they can’t necessarily meet those obligations,” Curtis said.
The legislation also would drastically change the process at the end of the suspension. Reinstatement would be automatic. In the current system, people must reinstate their licenses after the suspension and pay a $71 reinstatement fee, which Curtis said is an additional barrier for low-income Vermonters trying to navigate the system.