A casual observer wouldn't know that Donna Robinson was breaking the law as she drove her purple PT Cruiser in Royalton on a May morning.
But John Helfant is not a casual observer. He is a sergeant with the Vermont State Police, and he knew that Robinson's driver's license was suspended. Helfant stopped Robinson, took her to the closest police barracks and issued her a citation to appear in court for driving with her license suspended (DLS) — a misdemeanor.
It wasn't the first time Robinson had been charged with that particular crime. Or the second time. Or even the tenth.
It was her 17th offense.
After state police put out a news release detailing Robinson's repeated offenses, she gained some public notoriety. And the fact that Robinson has two DUI convictions complicates her situation. But her cyclical experience with DLS convictions is far from an outlier, and it may say more about the criminal justice system's handling of troubled drivers than it says about her.
Roughly 18,000 Vermonters have suspended driver's licenses, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. And a large proportion of those suspensions are the result of nonviolent offenses: roughly 60 percent are for failure to pay traffic tickets, and another 24 percent are for accruing points for traffic violations.
Many defendants, officials say, get caught in a loop: They rack up hundreds of dollars in fines they can't pay, making it impossible to regain their licenses. Especially in a rural state where public transportation is limited, people can't afford not to drive — nor can they afford the multiple DLS violations when they do.
Robinson, 32, says she is stuck in the DLS cycle. During her most recent arrest, she was trying to get to her job as a cashier at a Randolph gas station, located 10 miles from her trailer home. She estimates that she has paid more than $8,000 in fines for her various transgressions, including $600 in February for her 16th DLS violation.
"Most of the time I've been caught, it's been going to work or picking up the kids, going to an appointment," Robinson said. "Driving becomes something I have to do. I didn't go, 'Screw it, I'm going to drive.' I have no choice but to break the rules. I had to take these chances."
Critics of DLS enforcement say that many repeat offenders are not necessarily dangerous — they just can't afford to become legal drivers. Fines, surcharges and reinstatement fees can run up to several hundred dollars.
"The bottom line is, DLS really isn't a criminal issue. It's a poverty issue," Vermont defender general Matt Valerio said. "People can't afford to pay their fines. If you can't pay your fines, you end up in the same place."
Robinson is not the only one with multiple DLS arrests. Officials say they have seen several defendants with more than 30 DLS violations. Last year, the Vermont Judicial Bureau, which handles civil traffic cases, found more than 5,700 people guilty of committing DLS.
But you don't need statistics to see how the Vermont judicial system is awash in DLS cases — they are among the most prevalent charges on courthouse dockets.
Policy makers have long struggled with the snowball effects of DLS law. More than a decade ago, legislators did away with criminal penalties for DLS altogether. But in 2006, after law-enforcement officers said drivers were simply ignoring their tickets, lawmakers passed rules making the sixth and each subsequent DLS a crime punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and two years in prison.
Then, as budgetary pressures mounted and judicial dockets swelled, lawmakers in 2011 studied whether certain nonviolent offenses could be handled outside the courtroom, with DLS law at the center of their agenda.
In May 2012, lawmakers passed a bill which encouraged civil DLS suspensions to be routed through Vermont's Court Diversion Program, where drivers are essentially put on a payment plan and often allowed to regain their licenses before paying the full amount owed. The goals were to stop civil violations from mounting into criminal cases, to unburden the judicial system and to reduce the number of suspended licenses.
Since July 2013, 300 people have been able to pay their fines incrementally and regain their licenses through the Diversion program. Robinson was one of them, regaining her license after paying more than $200 a month in back fines for several months, only to lose it again when she was arrested for DUI in December.
Officials say they hope the program will grow, but acknowledge that progress has been slow, noting the need for additional staff to handle more cases. "The program, while well intended, doesn't have sufficient resources to do the job," Valerio said. "The programs aren't fully functional."
Elected state's attorneys have a great deal of latitude in DLS cases, and some, like Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, have taken steps to get drivers legal rather than punish them.
Most times, after Donovan receives a criminal DLS charge from police, he delays filing it for 90 days, advising defendants to pay off their existing fines and have their license reinstated. If they do, he drops the charge.
"I don't know how successful the system is, because we keep seeing it," Donovan said. "I tend to think the criminal courts are ill-suited to deal with this offense."
Robinson agrees. For now, she said, she is relying on friends to give her rides to work, or has paid people to ferry her around. But it's not a permanent fix, she said.
"I know I'm guilty. I did something wrong," Robinson said. "But I could be successful."
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