Oftentimes, Leon County Judge Layne Smith will ask a defendant in his courtroom with a suspended or revoked driver’s license whether they understand how to restore their driving privileges.
Nine times out of 10, they are “not quite sure” how to get their license back, said Judge Smith, who noted approximately 1.2 million Floridians’ licenses are suspended or revoked, including hundreds in Leon County.
Recognizing a need for a special program to lessen the problem, Judge Smith organized an event for July 7 at the Leon County Court Annex in Tallahassee. More than 500 county residents have registered, and an additional event has been scheduled for October 13 to accommodate the demand. Staff from the Florida Department of Revenue, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Leon County Clerk of Court, and judges will be available for face-to-face discussions with registrants about how to get their driver’s licenses back, with special consideration toward their specific case.
“This is a hard society to get around in without a car,” Judge Smith asserted, adding many people without transportation cannot sustain employment and resort to committing crimes, like stealing, to get by. They also may be on welfare or food stamps. “The bottom line is, I initiated this program because there is a big need in Leon County.”
He said although some individuals with revoked or suspended licenses take the bus or rideshare, the majority drive a car illegally anyway. When someone is pulled over by an officer, and discovered driving while their license is suspended or revoked, there are severe penalties: The first time is a second-degree misdemeanor. The second time can be a first-degree misdemeanor. The third or more may result in a third-degree felony.
“I see people who are frustrated, who are really at their wits end with what they have to do. They are underemployed or unemployed. It’s almost as if they’ve abandoned hope,” Judge Smith said. “I don’t want anybody to run up a criminal record if they don’t have to. I don’t want somebody to be a convicted felon because they can’t get this right.”
There are a number of reasons why a license could be either suspended or revoked, Smith explained, including failure to resolve traffic infractions or accumulating too many points on a license. A license may be suspended by the DHSMV for failure to have insurance. The Department of Revenue can suspend a license based on failure to satisfy child support obligations. When a judge imposes fines, fees, and costs, and those are not paid, the clerk of court turns the matter over to a collection agent, who winds up adding a 40 percent surcharge, and as a result, DHSMV may suspend a person’s driving privileges.
Smith said the July 7 program is the first of its kind in Leon County and will be a learning experience for the future. He said most people may need to satisfy community service hours or pay certain fees, but will walk away knowing exactly what they need to do to legally operate a motor vehicle again.
“The whole point is education first,” Judge Smith said, adding a rare number of people may be able to regain their driver’s license at the event.