Stuck in the System

How Idaho's traffic laws lead to ruin for the poor


If you're like one of over 68,000 Idahoans, in 2005 you found yourself with a suspended drivers license. Maybe it was revoked for driving under the influence (5,971 suspensions), or perhaps the ex is tired of waiting for a child support payment (2,259 suspensions), but whatever the reason (refusal to submit to Breathalyzer testing? 1,640 suspensions), you found yourself in a sticky situation--and if you're poor, living paycheck-to-paycheck, the more you struggle, the worse it seems to get.

Ada County deputy public defenders Ann Cosho and David J. Smethers estimate that 90 percent of the repeat offenders they represent come from "a lower economic class." And they say that once in the system, many of these people experience a snowball effect. Smethers outlines the common scenario like this: Average Joe gets pulled over for an equipment problem (e.g. a faulty taillight), and he gets cited. Joe then forgets to pay his fine--hey, he's got two jobs and a kid at home with the flu--and the ticket goes through the system as unpaid, at which point the Idaho Department of Transportation is informed and they suspend Joe's driving privileges, just like they did to over 19,000 Idaho drivers this year. (Failure to pay a fine is the most common reason for license suspensions in Idaho.)

But it gets worse for Joe. Let's say he's moved in the past six months--maybe he's been sleeping in his truck, maybe shacking up at a friend's house. The news that his license has been suspended doesn't ever find Joe, he thinks everything's all right, and then he gets pulled over for that pesky taillight he still can't afford to get fixed. Only now, Joe is cited for DWP (driving without privileges) and--like over 5,000 Idaho drivers in 2005--gets his license further suspended. Now he's facing reinstatement fees and citation fines--and, remember, Joe couldn't afford any of this in the first place. One more DWP, and Joe faces a mandatory 20 days in jail (10 days more than the mandatory minimum jail time for a second DUI)--all from a broken taillight and a little bit of laziness.

Or, in another scenario, let's say Joe's still living paycheck-to-paycheck, but instead of having a broken taillight, he forgets to send in his insurance payment one month. Last year, over 14,000 Idaho drivers had their licenses suspended due to lack of proof of insurance, along with another 8,500 failed to maintain their insurance and over 1,400 who had no liability insurance whatsoever. Joe would've been better off with the shot taillight, because now he's invoked the wrath of the SR-22, a state-requested "red-flag" that informs the Department of Transportation if Joe's insurance has lapsed, which--if Joe doesn't promptly reinstate his insurance--then results in the revoking of his license.

Unfortunately for Joe, however, the SR-22 also serves as a warning to insurance companies. According to Bob Henry of Henry Insurance Agency of Nampa, Joe now has to seek out "specialty" insurance, because most "preferred" companies won't issue an SR-22. "It also wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a 50 percent increase in premiums," adds Henry.

Joe now has a choice to make, according to Boise criminal attorney Thomas McCabe: "Find the money, stop driving and move closer to work, or break the law." McCabe says the damaging effects of an SR-22 are like getting stuck in a tar-pit: "The more you fight, the more you get stuck." McCabe also says that people can expect to forfeit, "their right arm and left leg and first born" if they face an SR-22.

Joe likes his right arm. So maybe he's smart enough to get a public defender to keep this nasty stuff from happening. After all, he can't afford a private attorney. But is that enough?

"I suspect--nothing against quality--I suspect they [public defenders] are over-worked to where they cannot devote sufficient time to their cases," says Jack Van Valkenburgh of ACLU Idaho.

McCabe adds, "The more prep time, the better the chances for a good result. It's a practical matter. As a private attorney, I can limit my case load. With a public defender, with their case load, the sky's the limit."

So let's stand Joe up, dust him off and take a look at him. He's broke, there's little chance of him moving closer to work (check the cost of property here lately?) and he's faced with the choice of breaking the law or... you know, destitution. Starvation. Stuff like that. Of course, he could always ride the bus.

"I see a lot of repeat offenders because of this situation. In a town like Boise where you have to drive, transportation is a huge issue for my clients," says Cosho. But there's a problem: The bus system in Boise is limited at best, and woefully inadequate the rest of the time. McCabe rates it a 2 out of 10, and says he deosn't plan on seeing it get any better any time soon.

"[Society's] not interested in public transportation except for economic or legal reasons," he says. "We're enslaved to the individuality of a car."

This situation hasn't gone unnoticed by state legislators. "We need to have public transportation alternatives, particularly for low-income, restricted, and the handicapped," says District 19 Representative Michael Burkett (D-Boise). "Our bus system needs to be expanded and enhanced." Still, Joe could make do with what the bus offers--provided he didn't have to be anywhere after 7:40 p.m. (when ValleyRide shuts down for the night), further limiting the type of job and hours he is able to work. How ya' feeling, Joe? Don't you wish you'd stopped at that railroad crossing (another of over 60 different reasons why nearly 5 percent of Idaho drivers have had their licenses suspended)?

"People make economic and survival choices all the time," says McCabe. "The problem is, when you have laws like this, you create a larger and larger outlaw mentality. We need to eliminate the criminal and outlaw mentality, but we're doing things that are counterproductive."

Smethers and Cosho concur, saying that the repeat offenders whom they serve quickly develop a "mindset of 'them against the government.'"

What would be productive, says Burkett, is to rethink our mandatory minimum sentences. "What we need is to leave this to the discretion of the judges," he says. "This is the type of crime that cries out for traditional discretion." One avenue for exploring alternatives to the affect of the DWP downward spiral is the use of community service, rather than fees, for traffic violations. "Community service is a real, valid way to approach criminal sanctioning that works in many situations," says Burkett. "But we're not utilizing it as much as we used to. I'd like to see it used more."

Until the Idaho Legislature chooses to rethink their stance on driving laws and how they affect our ever-growing lower economic class, the city of Boise considers overhauling its public transportation system, or public defenders are allowed the time and resources to present more thorough representation for their clients, everyone interviewed agrees, the "Joes" of our society are likely to be stuck where the economically downtrodden have always been stuck: fighting the system ... and losing.