Teon Smith, a mother of six, lived in Montgomery, Alabama. In 2018, she was pulled over because one of her tail lights was out. When the officer came back after running her driver’s license through the database, the officer told her that her license had been suspended for about three months by that time because of unpaid tickets. Smith was aware of her debt and she was already on a payment plan but she had no idea her license was suspended until she was stopped.
After finding this out, she still continued to drive to work because she didn’t have any other way to get there. She incurred numerous tickets for driving on a suspended license and driving without a license on top of the tickets that caused her license to get suspended. The fines were between $300 and $400 each time she was stopped. Smith recounts having to go through police checkpoints and roadblocks knowing that she was driving into a trap and would get another ticket. Sometimes she would get stopped more than once in a day, on her way to work and again on her way home. She would show the officer the first ticket that she got that day with hopes that they wouldn’t cite her again. Drowning in her traffic debt frustrated and devastated Smith.
Smith not only had tickets in the county where she lived, but also in the neighboring county of Elmore, which she had to drive through there to get to work. Elmore County is where her license was originally suspended when she defaulted on her payment plan. After Smith lost her job and she started going back to school, her income decreased substantially and she wasn’t able to maintain her payments. With hopes of getting her license back, Smith wrote to the judge in Elmore County to petition him for another payment plan. Smith received a letter from the court instructing her to visit the courthouse, but when she went the judge was not there and the clerk told her that the judge does not come to court. Smith asked the clerk about setting up a payment plan or to grant her a clearance letter to prevent her from getting additional tickets. To both requests, the clerk replied “we don’t do that here.” The court never inquired about Smith’s ability to pay nor her financial situation. Smith’s only option was to pay the $1200 she owed in full and she simply didn’t have that kind of money.
Smith was granted a clearance letter from the Montgomery court contingent upon her getting on a payment plan for her tickets in that county. This would have allowed Smith to get her license back but because she couldn’t get on a payment in Elmore County, the clearance letter from Montgomery was of no use.
Smith eventually got her license back, but about a month later, she received a letter stating that she needed to provide proof of insurance for an old ticket that was thrown out in court. If Smith didn’t provide the requested documentation, she would be fined $200. Smith was confused about why she had to provide this to the court when the ticket was thrown out and she couldn’t afford to pay the court $200. So, her driver’s license was suspended again.
As the sole provider for her children, Smith’s main reason for wanting to have her driver’s license back was so she could get a job. When she attempted to secure employment with Honda, a major employer in her city, she couldn’t even get into the gates on the premises because she didn’t have a valid driver’s license.
Smith’s court debt was also compounded because of her teenage son’s mistake. He’s fourteen and is currently incarcerated. He was diagnosed with ADHD and some other conditions and she says that he was hanging with the wrong crowd. He stole a car and caused $8,000 in damages that the court is now seeking from Smith. She owns her responsibility as his mother, but can’t afford to pay that when she’s already paying restitution on his behalf on top of just trying to maintain daily necessities and get her license back. She says it’s a struggle dealing with all of this and it’s really hard for her to provide for her other children. Sometimes, she can’t afford to keep their utilities on.
I was so excited to get my driver’s license, I’m going to get a job, you know where I can take care of my kids. And now I’m afraid to even take them to the doctor’s or to go to the grocery store.
Video provided by Alabama Appleseed.