In Springfield, Oregon, a man leaves his home, gets into his car and drives away. It seems perfectly normal. But what you don’t know is his license has been suspended 32 times for everything from speeding to failing a breathalyzer test. He has no legal right to be on the road.
It might not seem like a big deal, but some experts say that reckless disregard for the law too often leads to recklessness on the road and fatal consequences.
Five yong people were killed in New York, two bicyclists were killed in Oregon, and four people killed in Ohio: All the fault of drivers with suspended licenses.
Of course, not all suspended drivers are dangerous. However, each year in this country, thousands of people are killed in accidents that involve drivers with suspended licenses. It's not known exactly how many of them are on the road, but traffic safety experts are sure of one thing -- those drivers tend to be reckless and have no busines being behind the wheel. A leading study shows they are four times more likely to cause fatal accidents.
Sometimes what it takes to get them off of the road is a tragedy. That’s what Florida mother Marie Anderson learned.
"I saw Nicolas laying on the street," says Anderson. "I remember praying and just running around screaming. That’s all I remember. And I remember asking God to 'Please don’t take him.'"
Two years ago, in Ormond Beach, Florida, 5-year-old Nicolas Riconoscuito was playing on the side of the road when he was struck and killed by a van speeding down his street. His body flew 50 feet and then the van hit him again. His mother, Marie, says at first she felt pity for the driver.
"I went up to him and I hugged him," says Anderson. "I just thought it was a horrible accident, and honestly, I felt sorry for him."
But that sympathy turned to rage once she learned the driver already had a suspended license in one state—and had no license in her own state of Florida.
"The person driving the car should have never been driving, shouldn’t have been out there, shouldn’t have been on the road," she says.
As shocked as she is, Nicolas’ mother might be even more surprised to see how blatantly drivers with suspended licenses ignore the law.
A hidden camera investigation
We found out for ourselves when we went to Los Angeles county which has the most fatalities from accidents involving suspended drivers. Our hidden cameras had no problem catching people with suspended licenses behind the wheel.
And just where did we find them? Leaving the courthouse, getting in their car and driving away, right after a judge ordered them to stay off the road.
Our cameras caught Justin Pawlak. His record includes driving under the influence, speeding, and racing on the highway. Yet we caught him on camera leaving court in Torrance, California... and driving away.
We caught up with Pawlak as he was leaving for work and showed him our surveillance tape of him driving illegally.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline Correspondent: So I’m wondering why you would be convicted of driving with a suspended license and then brazenly walk out of court and get in your car and continue driving. And then we saw you drive two more times after that.
Driver: Why would I do that? Basically, I have no other way to get to work.
Corderi: You know that if you have a suspended license you are not suppose to be driving.
Corderi: So the question is why do you drive?
Driver: I don’t know. I guess, I don’t have a good answer for you.
The driver says his suspension will end soon if he’s not caught, well, doing this.
Corderi: So are you going to continue driving until then?
Driver: I don’t....
Corderi: ...and just hope for the best?
Driver: I guess so. I guess that is what I do every single day.
We caught another suspended driver, John Kakish, convicted of reckless driving and driving under the influence. In fact, his record was so bad he was forced to surrender his license to the Department of Motor Vehicles where it was destroyed. But as our cameras captured, that hasn’t stopped him from driving.
“Dateline” saw him behind the wheel several times. One day we followed him for eight miles from his house in Monrovia, California as he tooled down the interstate and dialed and talked on his cellphone. We caught up with him when he stopped.
Corderi: Why do you drive even though your license is suspended.
Driver: I don’t wish to comment. This is freaky. I’m picking up my driver right now.
He says he’s driving to pick up a driver because he has a suspended license.
Corderi: You drove here to have somebody drive you? You know what I’m saying.
Driver: Well, isn’t it obvious.
This isn’t just happening in California. In Lane County, Oregon, Gregory Rock walks from court convicted again for driving while suspended. His driving record, which includes reckless driving and speeding, is so bad his license has been taken away. Not that he seemed too worried about it. When we caught up with him, he was still driving. In fact, he had perhaps the most original excuse we heard for why he was still on the road: He said having a suspended license makes a driver more cautious.
Driver: People with no driver’s license drive slower, they pay attention to the laws because they don’t want to get pulled over. Common sense would tell you that.
Corderi: Well, why do you keep getting pulled over?
Driver: Because people know me, and the last time I got pulled over, I was speeding. But I was not used to the vehicle. It had nothing to do with me driving recklessly or anything like that, I was just going a little over the speed limit.
Try 24 miles per hour over the speed limit. "Dateline" checked, and Rock was going 79 in a 55 mile per hour zone.
So what about the law?
Why aren’t people who are caught driving with a suspended license arrested and put in jail where they can’t drive?
It turns out, in most states, police have the discretion to make an arrest, and often don’t unless the drivers are multiple offenders. And sometimes multiple offenders get away because the computer information police receive when they check the driver out at the scene is incomplete. That’s a crucial lapse, because that small number of drivers who are overlooked are often dangerous.
That was certainly the case in Florida, where young Nicolas Riconoscuito was killed, and the driver, Douglas Fountain, had dozens of suspensions from Oregon.
Matt Foxman, assistant state attorney, Daytona Beach, Fla.: Douglas Fountain was like a projectile looking for a target. He had, I think, 22 prior driving-while-license-suspendeds. Think about that for just a moment. He had to have been pulled over for something like 22 times. This man would not stop driving.
In fact, Fountain was stopped twice by Florida police, but little detailed information about his Oregon history turned up, and he was simply ticketed for driving without a license. He was even let go after the accident when Nicolas was killed. He continued to drive, and was cited again, two months later, for driving without a license.
Corderi: Okay. It seems pretty unbelievable. Does it seem that way to you?
Foxman: Right. It embarrassing for the system. It really is.
He says states do share some information— but not always enough.
Foxman: They share like conclusory information, like “suspended.” They don’t tell you that it’s 40 suspensions.
And if drivers are arrested, the laws themselves may not give judges the power to hand out tough sentences like mandatory jail time.
Douglas Fountain, who ended up pleading guilty to driving without a license and causing Nicolas’ death, did end up receiving the maximum sentence under Florida law — 5 years. It’s a punishment that seems too light to the prosecutor.
Foxman: This isn’t, “Oh, by the way, someone didn’t have a valid driver’s license.” This is someone that just has absolutely no regard for the law. And that disregard has caused a death.
Sheriff Mark Dion of Cumberland County, Maine says he has a solution. He knows firsthand the serious threat suspended drivers pose. In the sheriff’s own state, a recent accident took the life of a 40-year-old woman. The truck driver had a suspended license and had been stopped the day before in New York. A computer check showed no information about his suspended license.
Had the information about his record been complete, it would have shown 26 license suspensions and three accidents — one in which someone was killed. In this latest crash, the driver claims he didn’t know his license was suspended and he was not charged with negligent driving.
So what’s Sheriff Dion’s plan to deal with drivers like this?
Sheriff Mark Dion: We’re putting together dossiers, and we’re gonna go out, target them, and take them off the road.
His department has created a list of the areas worst drivers with suspended licenses. Officers stake them out and take action if they see them behind the wheel.
They pulled Tim Quimby over, acting on a tip. He was driving without a valid driver’s license— he has a history that includes drunk driving, 14 suspensions and 5 accidents.
Instead of just getting a ticket to appear in court, Quimby was arrested on the spot.
We caught up with him after he was taken into custody, trying to come up with the $1,000 bail. We showed him his complete driving history.
Corderi: Policemen consider you a menace to the road. Do you think of yourself as a menace to the road with this kind of sheet?
Driver: No, not really.
Corderi: Why would you continue to drive with this kind of driving record?
Driver: I have a family to feed.
That was excuse number one. He later went on to give us some more, including that police are picking on him even though he longer drinks, and that the laws in general are unfair.
Driver: Every time you get caught for driving without a license, they take your license away for longer. That doesn’t make any sense.
Corderi: Well, that’s because you’re breaking the law.
Driver: Right, but—
Corderi: Do you think you’re a victim?
Driver: In a certain way, yes I do.
Corderi: You know, I think people listening to this would be scratching their heads in disbelief that you are looking at this long list and finding excuses throughout. And, you know, police officers and people who study this say that your attitude, thinking you have the “right to drive,” is the problem.
Driver: Okay. I’m—I’m sorry I’m a problem.
Corderi: But, you don’t see yourself that way.
Driver: No, I don’t see myself that way.
More aggressive police action is a good start, according to traffic safety advocates. Other deterrents, they recommend, would be ensuring that police have accurate and complete driving histories available when they pull a driver over, establishing driving status checkpoints, impounding the vehicles of multiple offenders, mandatory jail time built into the law, and harsher penalties if suspended drivers are involved in accidents where someone harmed.
But for now, Sheriff Dion intends to keep doing what he’s doing, and hopes that other law enforcement agencies in Maine, and across the nation, follow his lead.
Corderi: You think it’s a deterrent?
Dion: I think it is. It must be a sobering realization for the offender. He’s not hiding anymore. He’s looking over his shoulder.
There are moves to improve cooperation nationwide to give police better access to driving records. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is reviewing all state license suspension laws to come up with model legislation that would be more effective in keeping these drivers off the road.
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