City court announces Traffic Amnesty Program

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaAmnesty: Terre Haute City Court Judge Matthew Sheehan and City Clerk Michelle Edwards are encouraging people to take advantage of the Traffic Amnesty Program, which went into effect Jan. 1, but ends Dec. 31. Here the two pose for a photo on Friday in City Court.

Vigo County residents with suspended driver’s licenses or unpaid traffic fines now have the chance to have the fees they face cut in half to help them get a reinstated license.

Terre Haute City Court Judge Matthew Sheehan and City Clerk Michelle Edwards are encouraging people to take advantage of the Traffic Amnesty Program, which went into effect Jan. 1, but ends Dec. 31.

The program allows for up to 50 percent of fines and fees to be reduced, making it easier for people to pay off tickets and get licenses reinstated.

“The Traffic Amnesty Program is a legislative act that provides us with an additional tool we can offer to defendants in our court to assist them in getting their licenses reinstated,” said Sheehan, who has served as city court judge for more than a year.

“We have a significant number of charges filed dealing with the offense of operating a motor vehicle while suspended or without ever receiving a valid driver's license,” the judge said.

“We have a large number in our community who are currently suspended or not licensed and have significant reinstatement fees, fines and court courts, and that presents a very large impediment for them to get back into compliance and get a license so they can drive to and from work or to medical appointments as needed. That's a very big problem in our community, in my opinion," Sheehan said.

Indiana legislators approved House Enrolled Act 1141 to provide amnesty for one year only for any fees resulting from traffic tickets or suspensions that occurred prior to 2019.

License suspensions due to overdue fines often affect low-income residents the most, Sheehan said, making travel to jobs difficult for many people. It’s also a hardship to make people with low-wage jobs chose between paying for groceries or medicine or paying a costly traffic ticket.

The judge said a similar situation occurred to two women who appeared in city court Friday. Both were charged with driving while suspended as a misdemeanor, and had high fees.

One woman was charged more than 18 months ago and had $2,000 in reinstatement fees. She had paid off all her tickets, maintained her high-risk insurance, and came to court Friday where the charge was amended from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

But even though she had paid her fees to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, she had received a notice from the BMV saying she was required to show insurance from the original date of the offense.

The woman did not have insurance at that time, Sheehan said, which was partly why her license had been suspended. So she now faces another mandatory license suspension of one year.

“The woman was in tears,” Sheehan said, “but I told her there was nothing I can do about the BMV’s administrative rule suspension, and I could not order the BMV to do anything.”

'It can snowball'

He advised the woman to get an attorney and go through the administrative appeals process.

Situations like that make Sheehan and the court staff feel helpless as they try to get people into compliance so they can follow the law.

Edwards said she also had a man who came to the clerk’s office to pay off two tickets from 2010 and one from 2018. Edwards said she told the man he should go through the court process, but instead he paid the tickets and said he would "take my chances" that the license will be reinstated. Edwards said she is certain the man will return in 45 days because the BMV will require more.

“There's no way to stop this complicated and daunting process,” Edwards said of the BMV administrative rules affecting motorists.

Sheehan agreed the process needs revisions to help people trying to get in compliance.

“It's frustrating because I'm not given the authority to do more to get them in a better situation. They don't need to be punished,” he said.

It is possible for a person to be driving while suspended without even knowing it, Sheehan said. The motorist may not learn about it until being pulled over for something and then learn about a suspension that shows up.

Fortunately, Sheehan said, the court has a good relationship with the prosecutor, public defender and clerk offices, and they will work together to let people what they need do to get a license reinstated.

“The goal is for people to obtain a valid driver’s license so they legally can drive and have employment,” said Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt. “We do everything we can to hold people accountable, but also assist when they are willing to be responsible citizens.”

Sheehan said he generally tries to give people extra time to get their situation handled. He said he knows each case is different, and he handles each defendant’s case on the facts of that case, but it is the court's hope that each person will get into compliance so their license can be reinstated.

Defendants can access to look at their record and get information.

Edwards said the court also tries to provide next steps for each person to start the process of getting into compliance and seeking a reduction of fines and fees.

It is not unusual for a person to have reinstatement fees exceeding a couple thousand dollars, Sheehan said.

“That's an example of how it can snowball, because if it was addressed earlier, it might not have gotten that high,” he said.

Edwards said one of the best tools for defendants with license problems is the court system, because of the many programs including the limited-time Traffic Amnesty Program. Requests can be made for specialized driving licenses and other fee deferrals.

"The first step is to appear in court, and the defendant needs to appear in court to see what can happen," Edwards said.

Edwards also noted that nothing can happen outside of a court hearing. A defendant must physically appear in court. Business cannot be handled over the phone or by email.

"The two simplest things a defendant can do is to follow through with any tickets they receive and continue to have their car insurance," Edwards said. "Those are the two biggest problems we see."

The court has a variety of programs that can help defendants, Sheehan said. Those include a text alert service to send reminder notices of court hearings, a veterans court program for misdemeanors, expanded mental health diversion court, paperless filing and an upcoming plan for evening hours.

Evening hours

"In an effort to better serve those working full-time jobs with traditional business hours, the court is trying to implement evening hours available once a month for people to come in to address any traffic related matters only,” Sheehan said. "Some people might not be able to get off work during the day."

The evening hours will likely be launched in late February or early March, he said.

Anyone with an outstanding ticket is encouraged to come to court, Sheehan said, but people are sometimes hesitant to show up for fear of having a warrant or facing arrest. Sheehan said he has the discretion to dismiss a warrant if someone makes the effort to appear in court and take care of a case.

Defendants should show up at the 8:30 a.m. start of court, and walk-ins are allowed.

“The best thing for a person with a suspension or an outstanding infraction pending in this court is to come to court and have it addressed proactively,” he said.

"The worst thing they can do is to ignore it, because then it turns into a snowball situation that gets worse and worse, and if they continue to drive while suspended, it court turn into felony charges," Sheehan said.

City court has a high volume of cases -- more than the six courts in the superior court system -- in part because it handles all traffic infractions and ordinance violations.

In 2019, more than 1,000 charges were filed for driving while suspended and driving without a license in city court.

The court had more than 6,300 total charges filed in the first three quarters of 2019. But it also disposed of more than 6,200 cases.

Sheehan said the court's daily docket has about 75 to 125 cases, and the daily sessions usually conclude by 10:30 a.m.

The court also has six public defenders assigned to assist defendants without the financial ability to hire an attorney for their case.

Both Sheehan and Edward said they hope people become aware of the amnesty program and spread the word, since it is only available in calendar year 2020.

“This is one of those rare occasions when we can brag about and promote something positive we are trying to do for people,” Edwards said, noting the people are often not pleased when they have to make a court appearance.

Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With more than 30 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.

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