James Monroe Crumble shouldn't get behind the wheel of a car.

Yet that's exactly where police have found him -- 68 times.

He has the most traffic tickets of any Minnesotan for driving without a valid driver's license. He got his first ticket in 1999, on his 15th birthday, and the latest last Sunday in north Minneapolis.

He is a prime example of a category of drivers who authorities say care little about traffic laws. In Minnesota, 14,091 people have been cited five or more times because they never got a license or have had it withdrawn, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state traffic records. More than 500 have been cited 14 or more times.

Court records show that such illegal drivers stay on the road even after repeated convictions, fines, jail stays and court orders not to drive. Many of them can't or won't get auto insurance, and instead drive vehicles registered in others' names.

"They are coming in over and over again," said St. Paul City Attorney John Choi, whose office has repeatedly prosecuted Crumble, including five cases since 2002 in which he served up to 81 days in jail.

Minnesota has taken steps to confront and reform such drivers, yet the problem has persisted for years. As a group, these drivers are at least twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident, experts say.

Last month, a driver with 14 citations for driving after his license was revoked was charged in a hit-and-run accident that killed a pedestrian on University Avenue in St. Paul. He allegedly told a passenger in his car that he fled because he didn't want to be caught again with no license.

As it turns out, police often catch people who are driving without a license.

Usually they have lost it for some earlier offense, including driving while intoxicated or unpaid traffic tickets. Their cars often are impounded immediately, though police say they sometimes allow a licensed passenger to drive the vehicle away.

In most cases, the penalty is the same whether it's the first offense or the 68th. The typical fine is about $180, and the driver's license is revoked -- again -- usually for a few months. In some cases, offenders get up to 90 days in jail, and serve two thirds of that time if they're on good behavior.

About 10 percent of the 14,091 scofflaw drivers are considered "inimical to public safety" because of prior drunken-driving offenses, according to the newspaper's analysis of 1997-2007 tickets. Their licenses have been taken away, and when caught behind the wheel, they face stiffer penalties and up to a year in jail.

Yet, repeat offenders are difficult to keep off the road. In some cases, it appears the only times they aren't driving is when they are locked up, according to police, court officials and others.

"They just do not care what the courts say," said Gregory Pye, senior commander for traffic enforcement in the St. Paul Police Department. "They do not care about the norms of society. They see their own needs as paramount."

Choi, the city attorney, said one-third of cases his office handles are drivers without licenses or insurance or both. For many, it's a cycle -- one ticket causes a revocation, then comes another ticket for driving while revoked, followed by another revocation and another fine, an impounded car, difficulties getting auto insurance and eventually jail time.

Many offenders don't have much money, so as the fines, reinstatement fees and insurance problems multiply, even people who want to become legal drivers may find it hard to get out of the cycle, he added.

Undoing the legal mess

In Minneapolis, unlicensed drivers with no more than three repeat offenses can opt for community service instead of fines, and be given time to apply for license reinstatement, said Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Lucy Wieland.

In some southern Minnesota courts, judges will give almost any repeat, unlicensed offender one chance at reinstating his license and clearing fines. One key requirement during the court-supervised process is "if you drive again, you are out of the program and you are going to jail," said Mower County District Judge Donald E. Rysavy, who co-founded the program nine years ago.

While some offenders don't care about having a license, Rysavy said that others "weren't bad people, but they were getting no help at all in trying to clear their past records." Since the program began, he said, there has been a dramatic decline in no-license driver cases in court.

Many of the successful participants have been Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens or green card holders who became legal drivers, he said. The program doesn't apply to illegal immigrants, who are not eligible to get a license.

Minnesota has taken more steps than some states to confront the problem, including early intervention with drivers on the verge of cancellation and special plates for some convicted drunk drivers, said Robert Scopatz, director of research for Data Nexus Inc. of College Station, Texas, who has studied the problem for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Some states have imposed progressive penalties for multiple offenses, vehicle forfeiture and other measures, Scopatz said. But such things cost money, and no state has tried them all, he added.

Yet another arrest

When Minneapolis police officer Eric Madson pulled over a car in north Minneapolis last Sunday, he knew nothing of Crumble's record as Minnesota's most-ticketed unlicensed driver.

Madson pulled the car over for having windows tinted too darkly.

"He told me right away that he didn't have a license," Madson said. "I could smell marijuana coming from the car ... so I patted him down and found a bag of weed in his pocket."

Madson said his squad car computer showed that Crumble, 23, had many prior traffic tickets, but he said he didn't know the full tally until a reporter called him about it. Madson said he ordered the car towed to an impound lot, and wrote Crumble a ticket for misdemeanor marijuana possession, tinted windows and driving after revocation.

Crumble didn't land in jail that day, but he still could. He's been there at least seven times previously, sentenced each time to 90 days, the maximum for misdemeanor unlicensed driving. A state motor vehicles official said Crumble has never had a driver's license.

The newspaper attempted to contact Crumble repeatedly through people who know him. One woman said he didn't have a phone. He did not return messages, nor could he be reached at his last reported address in St. Paul.

Though his record is long, it consists entirely of misdemeanor offenses, and no serious crime. He's been stopped for loud music, watching television while driving and various other violations. His profile on MySpace says he is a computer programming graduate of Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which the school confirmed.

He soon will be back in court, and a prosecutor said she will seek another jail sentence.

"This is one of the worst driving records I have ever seen," said Mary Ellen Heng, assistant Minneapolis city attorney.

dshaffer@startribune.com • 612-673-7090

ghowatt@startribune.com • 612-673-7192