Thursday, January 23, 2014

Drivers License Cases

Having a driver’s license is a privilege, not a right.  In order to obtain a license, a person must pass a written and behind the wheel test and pay the appropriate fees.  In order to keep the license, a driver must remain law-abiding.

There are several ways to lose a drivers license:  Too many moving traffic violations; one driving while impaired; failing to stay current on child support; failing to pay a fine for a traffic violation are just some of the ways a persons license may become suspended or revoked.

I routinely preside over cases where a person is charged with such a driver’s license violation.  Besides paying a fine, the person finds that his or her license is suspended, revoked or cancelled by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for an additional period of time.  In rural Minnesota, without readily available public transportation, the result may be that a job will be lost because the person cannot drive to work.

Some years back, I started noting pleas of guilty on these cases and then setting sentencing out four to eight weeks.  I told the defendants that if they came back at sentencing with a valid driver’s license, I’d do my best to see that they would keep it.  If they were successful in having their driving privileges reinstated, I would not accept the guilty plea, assess costs (often in the approximate amount of the fine) and continue the case for one year.  If there were no further drivers license or insurance violations, the charges would be dismissed and the license would not be suspended for an additional time. 

For several months, I kept track to see what happened in those driver’s license cases.  I found that just about one-half of the defendants were able to get a valid drivers license and could therefore drive legally again.  I thought that was pretty good – one half of the people who had these kinds of tickets became legal again and were able to keep their jobs, provide transportation for their families and would not be tempted to drive illegally.  I thought that was a fair trade-off for not putting a conviction on their record. 

In time, many prosecutors came to adopt this practice.  The Sibley County Attorney’s office, in particular, makes agreements with defendants to help them get their licenses back even before they come into court.

In these cases, I believe second chances are well worth the effort! 

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Next week:  One Day at a Time