Portage’s municipal court has raised the fines for people habitually charged with driving after license revocation, but officials say some drivers are short on other options and will continue to risk more fines.
Court Clerk Dawn Wilcox said Judge Dan Pulsfus at the outset of 2019 increased the fine in hopes of curbing high numbers of offenses. Wilcox added that Pulsfus might raise them even higher in the future.
Pulsfus raised the fine from $313 to $376 each in one case where a person had more than a dozen offenses. Another example indicated similar increases.
City Attorney Jesse Spankowski said getting to work or taking children to school might play a role and could explain why some people continue to drive after having their license revoked.
“They’re making a cost-benefit analysis,” Spankowski said, noting that people who are repeatedly fined believe it’s worth the risk to drive to work so they don’t lose their job.
Jacob J. Schonenberger, 32, of Portage, is one of those people. He was cited for a 27th offense of operating a motor vehicle after license revocation last week.
Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey said the number of citations is high, but it’s not necessarily the most ever. “We’ve had several people in that ballpark,” he said.
Schonenberger said his license was suspended and revoked after he was ticketed for speeding sometime before 2004. Since then, he’s struggled to pay off mounting fines. The occupational license he was granted in 2006 was later yanked because he used it to drive to a store instead of work. He never got it back.
He said if he could make it two years without being cited for operating after revocation, he could be eligible to get his license back. But he’s concerned he might be permanently barred from driving if he gets more citations.
Licenses can be revoked if a driver gets four or more license suspensions in a span of five years, Wilcox said.
“I’m only driving to get to work. I have to get to work to support my family,” Schonenberger said. “Sure, I could go work at McDonald’s for $7 an hour, but how can anyone raise a family on that?”
He works in the Madison area as an electrician, and the work sites change every day, so he says he can’t ride a public bus. He added that he carpools with co-workers whenever possible.
Schonenberger said he has never been in a car accident and has never been charged with drunken driving. He said he has liability insurance.
But Manthey said those who have had their licenses revoked are less likely to have car insurance and accidents can be particularly problematic when a driver is revoked, not insured and cannot reimburse for damages.
“It affects the people who drive legally when you have these offenders who continue to drive illegally,” Manthey said. “It just seems like there’s a disproportionate number of accidents that occur after revocation and suspension, and had they not been on the road in the first place, many of the accidents would not have happened.”
Manthey said he supports the municipal court’s decision to raise fines for those who habitually break the law and said revoked drivers might be more likely to flee the scene of an accident to avoid additional punishment.
Manthey said he and new Columbia County District Attorney Tristan Eagon agree people who are pulled over and cited once for operating after revocation, but who then proceed to pay the fees to be reinstated should be given a chance to do just that.
“That’s the goal, to get people out there legally,” Manthey said. “We’ve got no problem giving someone a break.”
Manthey said police officers sometimes recognize some repeat offenders when they are behind the wheel, but officers catch people driving while revoked through various means, including routine license plate checks.
“Or if they’re involved in an accident,” Manthey said.
The police chief said the city clerk’s office will work with people to set up installment plans and help them pay off fines.
Schonenberger says the city requires him to pay off all of his fines before he can apply for a license again, something he said makes it nearly impossible to get his license back.
Wilcox said Schonenberger currently owes the city $2,922.50 in fines and that the Department of Revenue had intervened to collect $789.80 in an active payment plan. Schonenberger might have been charged in other municipalities, but Wilcox said her office doesn’t have records for that.
In late 2006 or early 2007, Schonenberger said he spent three weeks in jail because at the time, driving with a revoked license was charged as a criminal offense.
Spankowski said most infractions no longer are charged criminally, but people who were convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and had their license revoked would be charged criminally for driving while revoked.
Generally, Spankowski said, people who have been charged numerous times enter a not guilty plea. Usually, people plead guilty if they only have a few charges and had “one slip-up, or something happened.”
Spankowski said he meets with defendants in a pre-trial conference if they enter a not guilty plea to operating after revocation violations. Most such cases do not go to trial.
“Usually, we’re able to reach some agreement, whether that’s a reduced fine,” Spankowski said. “Sometimes, regardless of what happens with the ticket, their license will still be suspended.”
If a defendant submits their first month’s payment for a fine on time, the city allows them to start a payment plan with no interest, Wilcox said. Garnishing payments directly from defendant’s wages takes longer to get fines paid off. If a defendant fails to pay fines for 90 days, an arrest warrant is issued.
“Everyone is eligible for a payment plan. To set it up, they have to make the first payment,” Wilcox said.