Vermont’s Scott signs law nixing many driver’s license suspensions

By SHAUN ROBINSON

VTDigger

Published: 05-30-2023 8:00 PM

Starting in June, Vermonters won’t lose their driver’s licenses solely because they have not paid the fines for a moving violation.

Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday signed legislation eliminating the state’s ability to suspend a person’s driving privileges for failing to pay speeding tickets or other infractions.

The law, H.53, applies only to civil violations — the state can still suspend licenses or driver’s privilege cards for criminal infractions such as operating under the influence. It will not restore driver’s licenses that have already been suspended.

“The whole goal was to have license suspensions only be put forward for folks who have serious driving behaviors, and not have it be related to somebody’s ability to pay a fine,” said Rep. Karen Dolan, D-Essex Junction, who sponsored the legislation.

Under existing law, Vermonters have 30 days to pay off the costs associated with a moving violation before the Department of Motor Vehicles can suspend their license. The state charges $80 to get it reinstated, though that fee might be reduced or waived at a judicial hearing.

But many people cannot afford to pay the fines from a traffic violation, and when their license gets suspended, they just keep driving away, according to Marshall Pahl, the state’s deputy defender general. In most cases, Pahl said, those people are not trying to skirt the law for the sake of it — they just need to be able to get to and from work.

His office has repeatedly seen a damaging cycle play out in which people accumulate multiple charges of driving with a suspended license, which can become a criminal offense.

Just shy of 4,000 Vermonters had their license suspended last year for failure to pay moving violation fines, according to data from the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, representing about 45% of all license suspensions in the state.

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Because fewer people will be paying the license reinstatement fee as a result of H.53, the fiscal office estimated the state will miss out on some $200,000 in annual revenue to its transportation fund. That fund receives about $300 million total a year.

Pahl noted that state law still includes multiple provisions designed to compel people to pay their fines, including the possibility of being arrested for civil contempt of court.

But the fiscal office estimated that without threat of a license suspension for common violations, drivers may be less likely to pay their fines in a timely manner. As a result, the state could see a drop — at least temporarily — in revenue to other funds supported by those fines, including one for programs for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

State officials have seen this happen in recent years since the Legislature did away with driver’s license suspensions for the nonpayment of fines for non-moving violations — such as parking tickets — in 2016, the fiscal office told lawmakers earlier this year.

As a result, lawmakers added a measure to H.53 that’s expected to increase the domestic and sexual violence fund’s other source: marriage license fees.

Starting July 1, marriage fees in Vermont will go up from $60 to $80. Of that, $50 will go to the domestic and sexual violence fund, up from $35 previously. Some of the fee revenue also goes to the town where the marriage is licensed, as well as the state’s general fund.

Vermont senators, however, added a provision to the bill that would return marriage fees to $60 in July 2025.

Dolan said she hopes by that point, lawmakers will have “a bigger conversation” about whether funding for important programs such as those addressing domestic and sexual violence should be funded through other, more consistent statewide sources.

State revenues from fines and surcharges tied to criminal and civil convictions have been on the decline in recent years, a trend that predated — but was exacerbated by — the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2022 Joint Fiscal Office report.

For instance, the state’s domestic and sexual violence fund — which supports advocacy organizations such as the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence — received about $940,000 in the 2017 fiscal year, but only about $535,000 in fiscal year 2022, the fiscal office reported. Two years ago, the fund was in the red — and Dolan said advocacy groups continue to express concerns about its stability. 

“It’s a huge issue,” Dolan said. “We need to understand that yes, we want to make criminal justice reform — but if we have fewer folks using the system, then there's less funding for some really important programs.”