Personal Narrative: Jean Butler

Jean Butler was a Florida resident for many years before relocating to Atlanta, Georgia in 2019. In the early 2000s, she got a couple of traffic tickets and had some outstanding court costs that she simply couldn’t afford to pay right away. Her finances only covered her necessities such as rent, utilities, and food as well as doctor’s visits and hospital bills for her sick child. At one point, her court debt was between five and six thousand dollars. Most of her debt was because of court fees that she owed, some stemming from her appearances in court for her tickets. One day, she was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and the officer informed her that her license was suspended. Butler was shocked and devastated when the officer arrested her because she didn’t even know that her license was suspended. She never received anything in the mail or notification about her license being suspended. She paid to get out of jail and then ceased driving.

Not being able to drive really harmed Butler and strained her tight budget even more because she had to pay for Ubers and taxis to get around. Butler requested a payment plan, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to pay all of what she owed back at once and the court eventually granted her one. However, she was never offered the opportunity to perform community service to satisfy some of her debt. Since Butler’s debt had already been contracted out to two different collection agencies, she had to pay $250 upfront to each of them to start her payment plans. One payment schedule was $74 per month and the other charged her $30 monthly. However, when Butler missed just one payment, she was kicked off of her payment plan.

There were a couple of instances when Butler had no choice but to get behind the wheel. One time was when she and her family were driving back to their home in Orlando, Florida from Georgia. They had left town to escape a hurricane, and her daughter, who was driving, got tired in the middle of the night. They didn’t have any money to stay in a hotel, because they had just paid for a week’s worth of lodging while they waited out the storm. Butler wasn’t comfortable with pulling over on the side of the road because it was so dark so she reluctantly got behind the wheel. An officer pulled her over because one of the headlights on the vehicle was out, resulting in another ticket for driving with a suspended license.

Between 2017 and 2018, Butler was caught driving on a suspended license in Ocala, FL. She had previously been to court in Ocala for traffic tickets. Even before her case was called, Butler had to pay the $50 charge for the public defender. As she waited to get in front of the judge, she witnessed people get turned away and have their court dates rescheduled because they couldn’t afford to pay the public defender fee. During one of those visits, Judge Sarah Ritterhoff Williams put Butler on probation for 6 months and ordered her to pay $300 each of those six months, because of her traffic tickets, court debt, and license suspensions. The other option was for Butler to go to jail which made her feel like she was a hardened criminal on trial for serious crimes rather than simple traffic infractions. She didn’t have a criminal record until she was entrenched in the system because of her tickets and court debt that she simply couldn’t afford to pay.

The court in Ocala gave Butler a deadline to pay back all the money she owed so that her license could be reinstated. She successfully made all of her accounts current by that date. Shortly after that, Butler received a letter in the mail stating that her driver’s license would be revoked on May 5, 2018. When she called to determine why, the court personnel told her that she had had three license suspensions on her record within a five-year period which Butler denied. She stated that she had gotten two within a five year period and the third one was outside of that time frame. The person told her that because she paid the costs stemming from all three suspensions at the same time, they were considered to have happened during the same five-year time period. The person also told her that there was no way to contest this and she would not be allowed to request a hearing. Butler would have to wait a year before trying to correct this situation.

Butler sacrificed a lot to pay the courts by the deadline she was given. Her rent was three months behind, she cooked and sold dinners to raise money, and her mother petitioned family members to donate money so that she wouldn’t go to jail. After all of that, Butler was so disappointed to find out that her license would still be unlawfully revoked.

After relocation to Atlanta, Butler was stopped once for not pulling over for an emergency vehicle. When the officer questioned her, Butler told them that she couldn’t get over because of all the traffic on the highway. The cop still issued her two tickets: one for $600 for not yielding to the emergency vehicle and one for $1000 for not having a valid license. Butler was also arrested and spent two days in jail. Her next court date in relation to this stop was scheduled for September 6, 2019 and she was ordered by the court to bring her Florida license to that hearing. This meant that she would have to settle all of her outstanding debt from Florida to avoid any additional fines, fees, and jail stays in Atlanta.