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Driver's license reinstatement event draws crowds to church despite rains

Hundreds of people fill Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg on Saturday in the hopes of having their driver’s licenses reinstated.
Hundreds of people fill Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg on Saturday in the hopes of having their driver’s licenses reinstated.
Published Jul. 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Scores of people packed Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday as several others waited outside in the rain.

They were seeking a fresh start, a chance at applying for a new job or simply the ability to drive their car again without fear of getting a ticket.

The church served as the location for Driver's License Reinstatement Day, a collaboration of several agencies with the purpose of negotiating fees with people whose licenses have been suspended because of a failure to pay fines.

Nearly 2,000 showed up for the event, which was set to begin at 9 a.m., according to state Rep. Darryl Rouson, the St. Petersburg Democrat who came up with the idea. Rouson said people began lining up at 11:30 Friday night, and by 7 a.m. Saturday, the line was down the block.

With the heavy rain outside, the church staff invited those in line to wait inside the sanctuary, which was filled to its 1,200-person capacity, said Valerie Ellis, office manager for the church.

The agencies organizing the event expected only about 400 people, so the big turnout made it impossible to process everyone, Rouson said. They were only able to serve about 500 people, and of those, only 100 were eligible to reinstate their licenses. Those in the crowd included people who were habitual offenders or who faced DUI or other charges.

"We just didn't have the manpower," Rouson said, although two of the state's five Florida Licensing on Wheels units were at the church.

Rouson started organizing the reinstatement event months ago to help drivers get their licenses back so they could get back on their feet. His office collaborated with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the State Attorney's Office, the Pinellas County Clerk of Court, and other agencies to provide the services. Judges James Pierce and William Overton from the Sixth Judicial Circuit were also present Saturday to help reinstate licenses.

Overton was so overwhelmed with the turnout that he announced that he would host a second event to reinstate licenses on Aug. 28 at the clerk's office at 1800 66th St. N in St. Petersburg. The judge took down all of the names of the people who had to be turned away, Ellis said.

It was a momentous day for those who were able to reinstate their licenses, Rouson said. Some who owed more than $1,000 in fines were able to reinstate their licenses for only a few hundred dollars.

The financial relief was life-altering for one man, who Ellis said hasn't had a license in 10 years. He was so happy he began to play the church piano, Ellis said.

Another woman told Rouson she paid $40 for a babysitter and caught two buses in order to be present.

St. Petersburg resident Bradford Wade was hoping to reinstate his license, but he couldn't make it in time because he was spending the day at his wife's graduation from St. Petersburg College.

Wade, 50, has had trouble reinstating his license because of a previous criminal offense, he said. He can't afford to pay the fines to reinstate his license through the usual process. Wade has been trying to find employment, but without a license, he said, he has been unable to find a job.

Rouson said about 41,000 people are reported to have suspended licenses in Pinellas County.

Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or sschmidt@tampabay.com.