Vermont is reviewing about 900 convictions from the last 16 months for criminal driving with a suspended license to determine how many might have been improperly resulted from incomplete information about a driver’s efforts to erase previous civil suspensions.
“Some of these convictions will be properly based and some may require further review,” state Court Administrator Patricia Gabel wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Prosecutions for one of Vermont’s most common crimes were thrown into disarray earlier this month when it was revealed there was uncertainty in some cases about how many previous and still-unresolved civil offenses drivers had — making it unclear whether they were eligible to be charged criminally.
“At this time, state motor vehicle records may not reflect the payment of all (civil suspension) tickets and therefore may not reflect information that is necessary to determine” if a motorist should be charged with a crime, Capt. William “Jake” Elovirta, chief of enforcement for the DMV, wrote in a bulletin to fellow law enforcement officers on Oct. 22.
Officials said the source of the problem is not specific enough information moving from the Judicial Bureau, which processes tickets and collects fines, to the DMV about when tickets are paid off.
Gabel said this week the cases involve about 600 individuals convicted of the crime since a change in state law took effect in July of 2014.
The issue affects drivers suspended for minor infractions, such as failure to pay speeding tickets. Drivers can rack up subsequent fines for driving with a suspended license. The first five minor driving-while-suspended offenses are considered civil, which usually means a driver is required to pay a fine. If a driver with five unpaid civil suspensions gets stopped a sixth time, he or she can face a criminal charge that can bring a $5,000 fine and up to two years in jail.
Officials say low-income working Vermonters are the most likely to be caught on the driving-while-suspended treadmill, because they find it difficult to pay traffic fines but must get to work in a rural state with minimal public transit.
A law that took effect last year said the if a driver had paid off some of his or her earlier civil tickets, or had completed a court diversion program to settle them, they would not count toward the list of prior offenses that would make someone eligible for a criminal charge.
The Judicial Bureau, which processes traffic tickets and collects fines, sends a daily update to the Department of Motor Vehicles on who has paid off tickets or otherwise complied with requirements to have a suspended license reinstated, Gabel said. It’s the DMV database that a police officer checks with when he or she stops a motorist at roadside.
Because both the Judicial Bureau and DMV have antiquated computer systems that don’t share data with one another, the daily report comes in the form of a nightly email from the Judicial Bureau to the DMV.
In meetings this past week, it was agreed that the information sent by the Judicial Bureau to the DMV will contain a new data field describing “which specific tickets have been paid off,” allowing a driver to back away from the threshold of a criminal driving-while-suspended charge, said Chauncey Liese, the DMV’s chief of driver improvement.
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