Suspended Driver's License A Common Challenge

Suspended Driver's License A Common Challenge

A suspended driver's license is a commonality for many clients of Restore Hope. Many live in a survival mode, overwhelmed by debt and court cases, with one crisis blurring into the next.

Logistically, they struggle with getting to work and to the store for groceries and diapers. Many drive anyway, knowing it’s wrong and keeping a constant watch for police.

“That’s the way most of my clients are living. They know that if they get pulled over the world will come tumbling down,” says Jami Zeringue, a caseworker. “There is no worse trigger for substance abuse than to be living on the edge, fearing you’ll be arrested.”

There is no worse trigger for substance abuse than to be living on the edge, fearing you’ll be arrested.
JAMI ZERINGUE - CASEWORKER
During the past three years, 529 of the families served by Restore Hope initiatives had at least one parent with a suspended driver’s license.
Of those, 61 percent were unemployed and had zero income from any source – so they couldn’t pay the fines and fees associated with their misdemeanor court case. More than 30 percent also had active child welfare cases.

But 89 percent of those 529 families have now secured full-time employment. Almost 100 of them have completely stabilized their legal situations, getting current with their fines and fees.

And 97 parents regained their licenses and once again can drive legally.

One of these clients is Chase Stillman, who was born in Searcy to what he calls a “long line of addicts.”

Chase now lives in Beebe with his wife and three children, ages 6, 8, and 10. He works for a mechanic shop, has been sober for three years, and has a valid driver’s license. He’s current with all payments for his court cases.

But that wasn’t true for a long, hard seven years, because Chase literally got high and ran from the law. His situation became so dire that he had seven warrants for his arrest and owed $20,000 in fines.

Chase and his wife had initially become addicted to opiates, but when they started having trouble getting those they switched to meth. Early on, Chase got some minor traffic violations – speeding, no proof of insurance. After his license was suspended, he kept driving to work and was ticketed for driving on a revoked license.

Every time he left the house he was afraid he’d get rearrested and wouldn’t make it back home.

“I was in and out of jail, running from the law, and by the end I hadn’t had a driver’s license in seven years,” he said. “I looked over my shoulder everywhere I went, worrying about getting pulled over. I was at the point where I thought the world would be better without me.”

By the end I hadn’t had a driver’s license in seven years. I looked over my shoulder everywhere I went, worrying about getting pulled over. I was at the point where I thought the world would be better without me.
CHASE STILLMAN

When Chase stayed high, he could avoid thinking about the fines he was accruing. Next he was arrested for theft, a felony. He began to avoid his probation officer.

On Mother’s Day in 2015, Chase’s daughter needed more baby formula, so he asked a friend to drive him to the store. It was about 6:30 a.m. when a Searcy Police Officer made a traffic stop against the friend for not wearing a seatbelt. The officer asked Chase for ID, then arrested him on a warrant. It took a week for Chase to bond out. That was the year he began absconding. He stopped making his fine payments altogether and stopped appearing in court.

In 2016, the couple lost custody of their children.

The children were placed with his wife’s grandparents. But his wife was adamant that she was ready to get clean, and she did so on her own. When Chase decided to join her in sobriety, he did so by finding the right church family, admitting he screwed up, and changing the people he was around. He relapsed once, about three months in, but got back on track.

“Addiction is a monster. I’d seen what it did to my mom, and to my dad, but my dad’s clean now,” Chase says. “I had even tried rehab, but none of it stuck until I was ready."

Once he established a strong period of sobriety, Chase had to confront the neglected court cases. By that time, he had seven active warrants for his arrest. He hadn’t paid much on charges going back to 2016, and every time he didn’t pay or appear there was a penalty. His monthly payments totaled almost $900.

“I couldn’t pay that and help my wife with the bills,” he said. The couple also desperately wanted their children home, but Chase knew they had no chance if he was still on the run from his legal obligations.

His wife knew someone who’d benefited from a Restore Hope program called 100 Families.

So when the family received their tax return in March 2022, Chase called the local 100 Families office. He told Jami, a caseworker there, that he had $4,000 and needed advice for approaching the court, dealing with his neglected probation officer, and setting a budget.

Jami asked Chase to come into the office. “By the next day I had contacted all the court clerks to start helping him sort it out, He had been absconding two years from felony probation. Chase and his wife had gotten clean on their own and had been for almost two years, but unfortunately that was just a portion of the situation.”

Jami was surprised that Chase hadn’t been picked up and sent to prison, which is commonly what happens. She immediately got him into outpatient treatment in order to begin documenting his sobriety. She helped him find a better job and deal with the bail bondsman, and she arranged for the couple to take parenting classes and obtain legal representation from Central Arkansas Legal Services to begin pursuing custody of the children.

Then she helped Chase work out a payment plan to begin paying the fines. He had to pay several thousand dollars to satisfy his warrants before he could appear in court. Once he had demonstrated regularity of payments, Jami advocated with the district court judges in White County to show that Chase was committed to regaining stability and to living an honest life.

“I only advocate for clients if they have shown me they’re willing to build good coping skills, make it to their appointments, and do the work in therapy,” Jami explains. “A big portion of Chase’s story is that when he started getting serious, he worked hard on budgeting. That is something not a lot of our clients are capable of doing. When courts see that, they’re more willing to give him breaks.”

Today, Chase has chiseled away at least half of his debt. The couple began having weekend visitation with the children and in August, regained custody and the children returned home. Chase still faces the felony charge and doesn’t know what the repercussions will be, but he’s gathered letters of reference from several people, including Jami, his therapist, and his pastor.

“I didn’t want to be an addict my whole life,” he says. “I never dreamed of being an addict in the first place,” he says. “No matter what, you can’t give up. No matter how many times you backslide, you have to keep trying, because eventually you’ll find what works for you.

“The main thing you have to worry about is who you’re around. The people I thought were my friends just wanted to keep me high so they could feel good about being high. And so you’ve got to change who you’re around, and you’ve got to stay positive, because if you get depressed, the first thing you’ll want to do is go use. And the biggest thing for me was that I found the right church home.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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