I-89 crash spotlights measure

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – A high-speed crash on Interstate 89 in Middlesex, in which two people were killed, has focused attention on a bill in the Legislature that could jail people who continue driving after their licenses were suspended.

The driver of the car that crashed into a rock ledge Thursday had had his license suspended 14 times, including nine times in the past year, said Lt. Bill O’Leary, the Vermont State Police traffic safety coordinator, who testified before the Legislature on Friday.

“Hopefully this tragic crash will help spur some new interest in getting a bill passed,” O’Leary after he’d left the Statehouse.

Under current law, anyone caught driving without a license are issued a civil traffic ticket, fined and their licenses are suspended again. The only exceptions are for criminal violations, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, O’Leary said.

A bill to close the loophole has passed the House and the proposal is now being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

One proposal would turn unpaid traffic tickets over to a bill collection agency in much the same way overdue child support is collected. Another would make it a crime to drive with a suspended license after being stopped for the sixth time. A law enforcement officer also would be able to remove the license plate from a vehicle driven by a driver with multiple suspensions and unpaid civil fines.

Police say there are drivers across the state who choose to ignore the civil penalties. A few have accumulated scores of civil suspensions and owe thousands of dollars in unpaid fines.

“What police officers need to be able to do is when a person has driven a number of times (illegally) we should be able to buckle them up and taken them into court as a criminal violation,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said those people are the most dangerous drivers on the road.

“We’re encountering them because they are committing traffic violations that put people on the road at risk,” he said. “All they do is crumple it up and toss it on the floor.”

The Legislature is considering a number bills that would close the loophole.

But Defender General Matthew Valerio said the answer wasn’t as simple as making a crime of driving with a suspended license.

He said a number of years ago driving with a license was decriminalized to take the pressure off the criminal justice system. Before that change, suspended license cases took up 20 percent of the resources his office devoted to misdemeanor crimes.

“We were spending thousands of dollars to attempt to remedy people who weren’t paying a couple of hundred dollars in fines. It didn’t make sense,” Valerio said.

He said it made more sense to encourage the state to collect unpaid fines, the reason for the vast majority of license suspensions.

“As a practical matter, when it was criminal and when it was civil the numbers haven’t changed,” Valerio said.

He said he favored creating a state agency that would collect money owed to the state.

On Thursday afternoon, state police said, a car driven by Bruce Shepard, 24, of Morrisville hit a ledge on Interstate 89, splitting the car in two. Shepard was pronounced dead at the scene. A female passenger in the vehicle died later at the hospital.

On Friday, state police identified the female victim as Ashley Taylor, 19, of Ticonderoga, N.Y. Police said that for the last six months Taylor had been living with friends in the Morrisville area.

“I feel bad talking about a deceased right after the crash,” O’Leary said. “His license had been suspended. He had been stopped 14 times. All they could do was give him a civil” ticket.

State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, a member of Judiciary Committee, said the civil suspension bill was one of the most important pieces of legislation being considered at the Statehouse this year.

“If we pass one bill this year that will make it safer to drive on Vermont roads this is going to be the bill that will do it,” Illuzzi said. “This bill takes no back seat to any.”

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