Lawbreakers on the Road: A WSFA 12 News Investigation

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - We share Alabama's roadways with thousands of people.  Most are doing the right thing by following all of the state's traffic laws.  But many others are not, choosing to drive with suspended or revoked licenses.

Every week in traffic court, people come to face the consequences of driving while their licenses are suspended or revoked.

"All of us are in a situation, a lose-win situation," said Jermol Garrett, who pleaded guilty to driving while revoked.  "But the right thing to do is to have your driver's license and that won't happen, if you have insurance that won't happen."

Court records showed Garrett had four previous citations for driving while suspended.   He explained why he continued to drive.

"You got to do what you got to do to get back and forth to work," Garrett said.  "And everybody got cars in Alabama, in Montgomery anyway.  Catch me if you can, you know how that is, everybody's attitude catch me if you can."

Garrett paid his fine and agreed to go to driving school so he can legally drive again.  WSFA 12 News reporter was in court when a Judge told another driver, Benjamin Hampton, to stop driving or else.

Hampton was sentenced to probation.  In court, the judge said he had 12 previous citations for driving while revoked.  Hampton told us he didn't wish to speak on camera - but said he accepted the judge's ruling.  That didn't stop Hampton from driving off in a car becoming an illegal driver.

First-hand knowledge

These drivers driving without a valid license are breaking the law and putting others at risk. Virginia Saunders knows first-hand, what can happen when a driver whose license is revoked still chooses to drive.  She was injured in a 2008 collision on Atlanta Highway near Arden Road.

"The driver came flying around the corner, they say the impact was probably 65 miles an hour," Saunders said.  "He never slammed on brakes, tried to brake, just went full force into the back of my minivan.  "No license, his license had been revoked because he had three previous DWIs."

Her oldest child was not injured, but her youngest had a sprained neck, and that wasn't all.

"It took a toll on my family emotionally and financially, for the simple fact emotionally I had a concussion for three months," said   I was injured from the top of my spine to the bottom of my spine.  For three months, I really could not take care of my children by myself."

And the fact the driver didn't have insurance complicated matters.

"We had to then turn to my insurance company to pick up the check and pay for all of the missing pieces."

Keeping the roads safe

It's up to the Department of Public Safety to find these drivers and keep them off the roads.

"It's dangerous for you to be on the highway and your license are suspended or revoked, because something dangerous happened," said Trooper Charles Dysart.   "You did something in order, for your license to be suspended or revoked, and we don't want to put everyone else at risk."

But many people take that risk of driving without a license and getting caught.  Attorney Julian McPhillips has dealt with many cases like this in his four decades of being an attorney.

"I tell you what they take a great risk when they do,' McPhillips said.  "And I'm not advocating to anybody that they do it."

Another day at traffic court we caught up with Searica Hailes.  She was stopped for having a tail light out and then ticketed for driving with a suspended license.  She says paid back her insurance company money she owed, but didn't realize she had to pay the state too.

"I didn't know until he stopped me," Hailes said.  "The judge said I did at the time it was still suspended even though I did get my license back, so I still had to pay the fee."

Paying the cost

So driving while suspended or revoked has a cost, not only for those who have to pay to get their licenses and insurance back.

"It will cost you, because insurance companies don't look nicely on somebody's license being suspended or revoked," McPhillips said.

But also for those like Virginia Saunders who have to deal with the consequences of that risk.

"Everybody needs to step back and think about it," Saunders said.  "When you're driving without a license, and/or you don't have insurance, it's a very selfish move, because anything could happen at any time."

Not everyone who drives without a license is considered a danger on the roads.  A license can be suspended for a wide range of reasons from having multiple DWIs to being behind in car insurance payments or child support payments.

While lawmakers feel those who are truly a danger on the roads should not have licenses, they say it can be tricky to strengthen penalties overall, because of a lack of a comprehensive public transportation system in much of the state.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.