Editorial: Breaking the cycle of lost licenses

  • Updated: June 22, 2009 - 10:40 AM

New program should benefit drivers and courts.

One Minnesota driver ignores a series of parking tickets, another neglects to deal with old speeding violations, and a third falls behind on child support. All three lose their driver's licenses, but they continue to drive and rack up more fines.

A soon-to-start pilot program may give drivers like these -- and the courts that prosecute them -- some relief. Beginning July 1, five Minnesota cities will try an innovative approach to help such drivers pay the fines over time, drive legally and reduce the burden on the enforcement, collections and court systems.

St. Paul, South St. Paul, West St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and Duluth will offer the option of a ''diversion license'' -- provided violators pay a $150 fee, take some financial management classes and agree to a payment plan to pay off previous fines. Even including the fee, that approach is cheaper for the driver than repeatedly getting fines that can run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.

The program allows motorists to have driving privileges while they pay off their debts. Under current law, violators have to pay the fines before licenses can be restored. When those in the program can drive legally, the city court system is less bogged down with repeat cases.

Cities in the pilot program will work with Financial Crimes Services, a private Red Wing-based company that will collect the fee and offer the classes. The Department of Public Safety will issue a "diversion license'' that looks like a regular license but has special coding to indicate that it is provisional. During the 2009 session, the Legislature approved a bill to create the pilot program and allow DPS to issue the licenses.

The program is not for repeat DUI offenders or those with a single violation. Rather, it's designed to help those who have had multiple problems with driving without a license. Police confirm that many violators aren't on the road because they want to break the law, but because they have limited or no other transportation options. To earn a living, care for their families and live productive lives, they must get behind the wheel. Some live in areas where public transportation is limited or unavailable.

In addition to individual drivers, the court system and taxpayers should reap benefits. The program doesn't cost the state anything, and it should save money in the long run.

State records indicate that more than 14,000 Minnesotans have been ticketed at least five times for driving without a valid driver's license since January 1997. St. Paul City Attorney John Choi, who along with other city attorneys brought the idea to the Legislature, said St. Paul handles about 5,000 traffic-related cases annually.

The current system, he said, treats the violation like a ''collections matter'' that doesn't separate out those who really need to be prosecuted from others, who with a little support and direction, can pay their fines and be allowed to drive legally.

Five cities will participate initially in the two-year pilot program, but the legislation leaves the door open to add more. Minneapolis and several other cities have indicated interest.

The diversion license is a creative way to address two problems: restoring driver's licenses and reducing license violations. If the pilot program is successful, it could be a cost-effective model for other cities and counties.

  • THE RATIONALE

    "This [diversion license program] is an intervention to help those who really want the help. They'll learn about the consequences; they can end up in jail, court or with bad credit if they ignore the problem repeatedly. And the city gets better outcomes by reducing invalid license cases.''

    St. Paul City Attorney John Choi

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