The Second Judicial Circuit’s first ever driver’s license restoration clinic attracted hundreds of Big Bend motorists Friday to the Leon County Courthouse Annex on Thomasville Road. The experiment sparked some frustration and wasn’t without its critics, but community activists are lauding the effort.
Organizers were putting up tents and card tables in the Annex parking lot when Jermaine Branton and his fiancé, Tyesha Feaster, pulled up on a motor bike at 7:30 a.m. The courthouse didn’t open until 9 a.m.
But like many people, Branton and Feaster only heard about the clinic a few days before and wanted to get in line early. Branton says he set up a landscaping business for Feaster because it was cheaper than paying $600 in court fines to reinstate her driver’s license – so she can look for work.
“You would be amazed at how many people that affects. That they can’t go to work, because they can’t go to work and make a living, that that also leads to other infractions…”
A few feet away, a dejected man in a polo shirt complained he was locked out of the online registration page. He declined to give his name, but he said the state wouldn’t be so quick to revoke a driver’s license if lawmakers knew the real consequences.
“Your license is everything. Without a license, you can’t buy certain medication over the counter. They don’t care about the ID, they want to see the green strip. There are a lot of people that don’t realize that we can’t get a job because of it. There are credit checks based on your license!”
Leon County Judges Layne Smith and Stephen Everett say they DO know. Smith says too many people in his courtroom were caught in a Catch 22, unable to pay fines because without a license they can’t get a job.
“There are good reasons why some of these laws and rules are in effect, but boy, the consequences can mushroom out of contro.”
Smith says the idea was to get judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the same room with the DMV and other agencies so people could set up payment plans or work off their fines through community service.
But Leon County Public Defender Andy Thomas says it doesn’t always work. Thomas spent part of the clinic huddled with clients in a crowded Annex hallway. He says many of them still face payment plans they can’t afford, even if it’s just a few hundred dollars.
“Without an indigency fund, if there’s no money to help these people pay some of these fees, this is basically just a nice public relations thing, in my view. It’s good to educate people, tell them what’s going on. But we can do that in my office.”
Smith acknowledges that not everybody that needs help will be able to get it. He says he’s working on a way to quantify whether all the energy expended on the clinic was worth it. But even that won’t be easy, Smith says.
“Well, I’d like to cure leprosy and make the lame walk and raise the dead. But that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be anecdotal. How many people’s lives, children’s lives, did we change because mom or dad could drive them to soccer practice or band practice or pick them up after some extracurricular activity. How many people were able to get gainful employment, and what would that mean.”
Organizers were expecting 200 participants, but more than 500 pre-registered or put their name on a waiting list. That prompted a second clinic, scheduled for Friday, October 13th.