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Residents troubled by unlicensed motorists

NORCROSS - Gari Thomas avoids Jimmy Carter Boulevard like the plague.

The south Gwinnettian lives a stone's throw from the ever-busy thoroughfare, but she won't touch it, she says.

When directing friends to her home in tucked-away Brookwood Park, she gives looping, inconvenient routes that rack up miles but bypass "JCB" entirely. She does this, she says, for their protection, as even a short jaunt on JCB is a flirtation with disaster.

Drivers in the area "are not civilized anymore," Thomas said, who's lived in the ethnic hodgepodge that borders DeKalb County since 1996.

Thomas, like many in the close-knit series of subdivisions along Old Norcross-Tucker Road, fears "no license" drivers are rampant in the Norcross area. In her view, JCB and its slightly safer cousin, South Norcross-Tucker Road, are basically off-limits when children are on board their vehicles.

Thomas swears she recently blew through a red light - racking up a $70 fine, courtesy of a motion-activated camera - in fear the tailgater behind her was uninsured. Even more unsettling, she says, was an unlicensed driver who drunkenly plowed through the entrance sign to Brookwood Park, hopped out of his Toyota Sequoia, ran for it, but was quickly corralled by police.

"My problem is that (drivers) do things that are unexpected," said Ashleigh Hally, a resident of nearby Smoketree subdivision. "We all do things - but crossing two lanes to make a right-hand turn? It just seems like people don't know what the rules are."

Police statistics do little to quell the homeowner's concerns.

According to traffic records, the Gwinnett County Police Department issued 3,379 citations for driving without a license in 2005. That's roughly nine citations per day.

The following year, the department dished out nearly 1,000 more citations, edging the average to 12 busts per day.

Last year, the daily average of no-license drivers bumped to 14. Officials could not easily dice the data to illustrate where in Gwinnett the busts happened.

And the trend continues to spike. On Tuesday alone, for example, 18 drivers were booked in the Gwinnett County Jail for driving without licenses. The majority of those drivers live in Norcross.

Elusive solution

Cpl. Illana Spellman, Gwinnett police spokeswoman, said the figures represent a problem police find difficult to combat. Unless drivers exhibit another violation - such as a busted headlight, missing license plate or erratic driving - their unlicensed status is largely imperceptible.

All unlicensed drivers are subject to jail time. Bond for a "no license" offense is $280, according to jail records.

"Any unlicensed driver is a risk," Spellman said. "They don't know most of the proper traffic laws and driver etiquette."

Take the case of Walter Guillen-Romero, for example.

The 22-year-old was arrested Feb. 8 while driving South Norcross-Tucker Road. Police said Guillen-Romero was behind the wheel of a 1996 Honda Accord without insurance, a drivers license or headlights - at 8:30 p.m.

Guillen-Romero, a Honduran-born construction worker living in Tucker, could not be reached for comment.

"People are just being idiots," said Smoketree resident James Lane.

Lane grew up in Connecticut making frequent, sometimes harrowing driving trips into Manhattan, where motorists are famously vigilant but usually insured, he said. Driving near his subdivision makes him more nervous. He fears physical and financial damage.

"If there's an accident, who knows?" said Lane, referring to uninsured motorists.

Lane suggested observing a nearby Norcross intersection, where accidents are frequent and pedestrians jump around moving cars "like Frogger," he said.

So, at 6 p.m. on a recent, rainy evening, cars speed from the parking lot of Plaza El Bigotes, adding to a traffic flow that congeals on South Norcross-Tucker Road. Pedestrians in rain gear - a young man in a black parka, a woman cloaked in plastic - meander across traffic to a corner Walgreens. Several cars blow through red lights. Nothing unusual for rush hour.

Then a young woman darts across a nearby intersection, wearing black jogging pants, a dark blue sweatshirt, shielded from the rain by a black umbrella. Removed from the streetlight glow, she's nearly invisible. The driver of a Ford F-150 turning left onto South Norcross-Tucker Road - apparently spooked by the pedestrian - stops the truck suddenly, clogging traffic further. The truck doesn't move for about a minute. The woman scurries past the security gate of a nearby apartment complex, back to darkness.

Immigrants in question

The Norcross-area residents interviewed for this article make one point abundantly clear: Their criticisms and worries aren't targeted at illegal immigrants specifically, but at any driver who breaks the law.

That sentiment was echoed recently at the Georgia State Capitol.

The Senate approved legislation in February to stiffen penalties for motorists caught repeatedly driving without a valid Georgia license.

The bill would make the crime a felony on the fourth offense within five years. Violators would face one to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500 to $5,000.

The bill's author, Sen. John Wiles (R-Kennesaw), calls it a move to curtail the problem of unlicensed drivers across Georgia. Last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed a similar bill - SB 15 - over concerns it could harshly affect newcomers to the state who aren't licensed within 30 days.

The new version is tweaked. First-time violators could have the charge dropped when they show court officials proof of a valid Georgia license. In other words, those capable of getting legitimate licenses can step around trouble. Those who can't, can't.

"If you have the ability to get a Georgia license, we're not going to punish you," Wiles said.

But Elise Shore, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the bill a thinly veiled means to keep illegal immigrants in check - or to scare them out of Georgia altogether. She testified against the bill last month.

"This kind of law creates the potential for racial profiling, regardless of immigration status," Shore said. "It will create an incentive for (police) to stop you. This creates distrust between law enforcement and the community."

But from an enforcement standpoint, options appear anything but plentiful.

Spellman, the police spokeswoman, said measures to curtail unlicensed drivers don't exist yet in Gwinnett.

"Everyone knows that in order to drive a vehicle, you must have a driver's license," she said. "There is no proactive enforcement measure that can be taken."

Eliesh Lane isn't buying that. The Smoketree homeowner's association member thinks police across Gwinnett should implement "random checks" to strain criminals off the road.

"Why wait for one of the accidents to happen?" Lane said. "Be more proactive."

Her husband, James Lane, who's fluent in Spanish, prides himself on how well he interfaces with the Hispanic community. He loves the diversity, the unique texture that different cultures weave into the neighborhood, he said.

But he doesn't want to get whacked - or to whack somebody - en route to the grocery store.

"It's not an ethnic thing. It's not a socioeconomic thing," said James Lane. "It's a peace-of-mind thing."