Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
SWANTON — For seven years, Chad Hotchkiss felt he had to look over his shoulder while driving.
Due to an inability to pay fines, Hotchkiss, 33, of Swanton, has had his driver’s license suspended off and on since 2000. Since 2008, he always had one traffic ticket unpaid, and therefore was not supposed to be on the road.
As an employee at Harrison Concrete – in Georgia – though, Hotchkiss needed to drive to work, the only way he could get closer to paying off his tickets. So he risked it.
“It’s a constant challenge once you have [DLS violations],” Hotchkiss said.
Over the years, he got unlucky – police pulled him over, saw his status, and issued him yet another DLS ticket he couldn’t pay.
“I’ve been averaging a couple a year,” said Hotchkiss. “It started out at $120 (per ticket) and went up as far as $300.”
Fortunately for Hotchkiss and thousands of other Vermonters in a similar position, late last week he had an opportunity to finally be able to drive legally.
Driver Restoration Day, a pilot program held at the Edward Costello Courthouse in Burlington on Friday, offered a kind of amnesty to those with DLS violations due to inability to pay fines.
Anyone from Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, and Washington counties could get their licenses reinstated by paying off only a fraction of their fines on March 20. About 22,000 Vermonters, as of last week, were delinquent on traffic tickets, and a good number of them showed up to the Burlington courthouse on Friday.
Hotchkiss, at about 7:30 a.m., was among them, standing near the beginning of a long, snaking line that began on Cherry Street and went all the way to Pearl Street. Hotchkiss and his 12-year-old son, Chad Hotchkiss Jr., had been there since 4 a.m.
“Some of them have been here since midnight,” said Hotchkiss, pointing to the beginning of the line. “It’s been worth it to come down now,” he added, glancing at the hundreds of people standing behind him and his son.
On the other side of the courthouse stood Kari Gagnon, the Franklin Grand Isle Court Diversion DLS Program coordinator and case manager. Gagnon was there to meet with her clients and help them get reinstated.
She had touched base with and confirmed 42 clients would be showing up Friday, though more could certainly come, she said. She brought all her client case files just in case.
“I’m prepared for all of them – whoever decided to come,” said Gagnon.
She added that her caseload has grown larger since Franklin Grand Isle Court Diversion began taking criminal DLS cases – people with five or more violations – in a partnership with Franklin County state’s attorney Jim Hughes.
“There’s been a high demand,” said Gagnon. But every case court diversion takes, the court system doesn’t have to worry about.
“It’s cleaning up the courtroom,” she said.
The Driver Restoration Day last week was also a way, according to Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, to help ease the burden for the state court system.
While the Costello courthouse planned to be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., eight hours was an unlikely amount of time to get through all the people lined up outside. Gagnon said there would most likely be future driver restoration days.
“It’s a good thing [to reinstate licenses]. It’s really going to help the community and people who can’t pay down their debt,” said Gagnon. “There’s an overwhelming caseload of people with their licenses suspended and I think this will put a dent in that.”
Reinstating licenses – in addition to its practical benefits – also brings overwhelming joy to those who haven’t been able to legally drive for years.
“They are so happy,” said Gagnon. “It’s almost like a kid at Christmas.”
“It’s a relief,” said Hotchkiss. “It’s been seven years.”
When asked what he wanted to do once he had his license again, Hotchkiss said he’d like to get travel outside Swanton with his son to do some recreational activities.
“We do a lot of hiking and fishing, [but] we haven’t been able to do much of that,” said Hotchkiss. “We haven’t gone up to the Long Trail in three to four years.”
With a driver’s license, the road would be wide open for Hotchkiss and others who couldn’t afford to regain their privileges before Friday.
“I’m pumped,” said Hotchkiss.