Program Serves as Model for Others in State
Clay County citizens need a valid driver’s license to drive a vehicle legally to their jobs, schools, grocery stores, doctor appointments and more. However, an emerging problem in many Florida counties, including Clay, are drivers on the road with a suspended license. Already this year, 270 drivers have been arrested by local law enforcement in Clay County for DWLSR – driving with license suspended or revoked. For employees whose jobs hinge on having a valid driver’s license, a suspension often means their livelihood is jeopardized. Due to nonpayment of court costs, fines and fees this year so far, clerks in Clay County were required to suspend 2,516 driver’s licenses.
Many of these drivers could have avoided license suspension and the arrest that followed in some cases by simply taking advantage of the Clay County Clerk of Court’s Payment Plan Program. Clerk of Court Tara Green leads the effort statewide. Her goal, and the goal of any Clerk of Court who offers payment plans, is to partner with the community to help individuals meet their court obligations while still driving, working and moving forward with their lives.
“While having driver’s license suspensions as a compliance tool is important to all Clerks, we fully understand that keeping people working and driving legally is just good public policy. Clerks agree and are laser-focused on this issue,” Green said. “We want to be part of the solution, working with our citizens to prevent suspensions whenever possible.”
The clerks in the Clerk of Court’s Criminal Department work daily with citizens who just wrapped up their cases in court. According to Criminal Department Director Michelle Thrasher, 1,347 payment plans were set up already this year for citizens who took advantage of this option. Separately, clerks were able to clear 1,033 licenses for reinstatement either because of full payment or payment plan compliance. Payment plans are only offered to defendants who are ordered to pay court costs, fines and fees on criminal cases, i.e. Felony, Misdemeanor and Criminal Traffic. The Clay County Clerk’s Office kicked off its payment plan program in January 2014. After judgement is finalized in court, many defendants come straight to the cashiers and make good on the judgement so they can move on with their lives with a clean slate immediately. Others feel overwhelmed by the amount of their court-ordered fines and fees and by their inability to pay the debt in full. They may react by bypassing the cashiers, setting a course towards nonpayment, license suspension and possible arrest. Others, come to the cashiers and work out a payment plan. It starts with merely $25, but means the defendant stays current with the court system, out of hot water with his/her employer, and stays on the right side of the law, driving legally.
A wide variety of crimes and circumstances can lead to a citizen being arrested, in court and subject to court costs, fines and fees owed. Each person’s story is different and some touch the hearts of our clerks who, after all, are public servants and want to help.
“There was a seventy year old woman on a fixed income who had an adult child with disabilities requiring life-long care,” recalls Criminal Department Assistant Manager Lisa Sanchez. “If she lost her license she wouldn’t be able to drive her daughter to much-needed therapy appointments. We worked with her to set up a payment plan and, even when she missed a payment due to being hospitalized, we were able to contact her to prevent a suspension,” Sanchez said.
Sometimes citizens are victims of identity theft or other mix ups that put their driving status at risk. Sanchez also remembers helping a man straighten out such a situation. “I spent days going through each and every case because the man had a twin whose court judgements had been mistaken for his and were endangering his chance to accept a great job out of the state of Florida,” she said. “I was able to separate the two men’s records and his driver’s license was reinstated.” On another occasion, the clerks were able to help a young man finally put his past behind him and move forward with a job opportunity. “We helped him set up payment plans, paying a few off and sending the Judge a motion to withdraw an adjudication on another so he could receive his driver’s license,” said Sanchez. “He called later to say he received a promotion at work as a foreman over his crew due to having a license. His family members later called to thank us for everything done to help him and to let us know he was doing great,” she recalled fondly.
Florida’s Clerks of Court held a two-day summit in Orlando in November to share ideas and best practices with the goal of increasing court compliance and preventing driver’s license suspensions for citizens just like these. Clay County Clerk of Court Tara Green spearheaded the event and welcomed fourteen Clerks and ninety-eight Clerks’ staff from numerous counties. The summit was jointly hosted by the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation (CCOC) and the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers (FCCC). Nonpayment of court costs, fines and fees is a major issue statewide. In 2016, $207 million in delinquent accounts in Florida were remitted to collections agencies. Of that amount, only $27 million was collected according to data from the CCOC. Efforts are under way in Clay County and statewide to streamline the payment process in 2018 using online payment options that make compliance more likely and driver’s license suspensions less likely.
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