LIMITING SUSPENSION/REVOCATION OF DRIVERS’ LICENSES TO DRIVING-RELATED CONVICTIONS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unfair Roadblock: While states have a legitimate interest in keeping individuals who are unfit to drive off the roads, many states have passed laws suspending or revoking the drivers’ licenses of people convicted of drug offenses, even when these offenses are unrelated to their ability to drive. Many states also provide no opportunity for these drivers to obtain restrictive licenses so that they can get to work, school or treatment. Taking away drivers’ licenses for an offense that is not related to the ability to drive and providing no opportunity to obtain restricted drivers’ licenses is harmful to the individuals, their family and communities by making it impossible for many of them to earn a living, go to school or receive health care, including drug or alcohol treatment.

How to Remove the Roadblock: States should limit revocation or suspension of drivers’ licenses to driving-related drug offenses, such as driving under the influence of a controlled substance. States also should offer restricted licenses when appropriate so individuals whose licenses were suspended or revoked can work, go to school, and obtain health care.

This tool kit provides materials advocates can use to seek reform of these laws, including:

THE PROBLEM - WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED

The suspension or revocation of drivers’ licenses is a significant but often overlooked barrier to economic advancement for people with criminal records who have paid their debt to society and want to become productive, tax-paying citizens. While there is a clear societal interest in keeping those who are unfit to drive off the roads, broadly restricting licenses for convictions unrelated to an individual’s ability to drive safely is an unfair penalty that does society more harm than good. Prohibiting people convicted of a non-driving-related drug offense from driving makes it harder for them to look for and keep jobs, participate in addiction treatment or healthcare, and get education or job training. Especially in suburban and rural areas that lack extensive public transportation, a valid driver's license can be crucial to an individual’s ability to successfully reenter society.

In 1992, Congress amended the Federal Highway Apportionment Act to withhold a portion of federal highway funds from any state that failed to adopt a license suspension/revocation law for people convicted of drug offenses. This law loosely defines “drug offense” as any criminal offense involving the possession, distribution, manufacture, cultivation, sale, transfer, or the attempt or conspiracy to possess, distribute, manufacture, cultivate, sell, or transfer any substance (prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act), or the operation of a motor vehicle under the influence of such a substance. The federal law requires a suspension or revocation of at least six months.

However, a governor can submit written certification to the Secretary of the Department of Transportation that she or he opposes the revocation/suspension and that the state legislature has adopted a resolution expressing opposition to this law. States also can limit the revocation or suspension to driving-relating drug offenses, such as driving under the influence of a controlled substance, or to other more limited categories of offenses, and still qualify for full federal funding. And States can offer restricted licenses that allow people with revoked or suspended licenses to drive for such purposes as employment, education, or obtaining alcohol or drug treatment or other health care.

Limiting the suspension or revocation of licenses to offenses related to an individual’s ability to drive safely for a six-month period and issuing restricted licenses would achieve many important benefits:

  • Suspending or revoking drivers’ licenses for six months or longer after a drug conviction unrelated to driving is counterproductive, because it imposes an additional barrier that can prevent people who committed a drug offense and complied with their sentence from successfully reentering society. Repealing or shortening the suspension or revocation will eliminate an unfair penalty and make it easier for people who made a mistake to obtain a job or schooling and become productive members of their communities.
  • Similarly, providing individuals with restricted licenses enables them to seek and retain employment, obtain an education or job training, all of which help them lead more stable lives, thus effectively reducing recidivism and increasing public safety.
  • Individuals convicted of drug-related driving offenses often need drug or alcohol treatment or other healthcare services. Providing them with restricted licenses – so that they can obtain treatment and address the underlying problem that led to the driving offense in the first place – would reduce both the number of people with drug problems and the number of accidents.

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STATE LAWS

A detailed description of every state’s laws regarding revocation or suspension of drivers’ licenses because of drug convictions can be found in the Legal Action Center’s report, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry at http://www.lac.org/lac/main.php?view=law&subaction=3 The following is a summary of our findings:

Type of drug offenses that result in license revocation/suspension

  • Four states – Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, and New Jersey – suspend licenses for all drug-related offenses whether or not they are related to the ability to drive.

  • Twenty-three states suspend or revoke licenses for some drug offenses unrelated to the ability to drive.

  • Twenty-three other states suspend or revoke licenses only for driving-related offenses or have opted out of the federal law completely.

Length of revocation/suspension

  • Currently four states – Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, and South Carolina – revoke or suspend drivers’ licenses for longer than six months for drug convictions unrelated to driving.

  • Of the 27 states that automatically suspend or revoke licenses for some or all drug convictions unrelated to driving, 21 limit the revocation or suspension of licenses to six months for a first offense.

Availability of restricted licenses

  • Thirty-two states offer restrictive licenses for driving to work, school or treatment; 18 do not.

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WHAT YOU CAN DO

If your state goes beyond the minimum requirements of the federal law and suspends or revokes drivers’ licenses for drug offenses unrelated to the ability to drive, or for more than six months, or does not provide restricted licenses, you can advocate for one or more of the following reforms:

  • States that have not already done so should formally submit their written opposition to the law to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

This will ensure that states can amend their laws without penalty.

  • States that have not already done so should limit the suspension or revocation of drivers’ licenses to only those drug offenses related to an individual’s ability to drive safely.

In twenty-three states, revocation or suspension of a driver's license is only triggered by conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs or drug-related offenses while in physical control of a motor vehicle. The other states should enact similar laws.

  • Provide restricted licenses so people can go to work, school and treatment.

Limited driving privileges for those whose licenses are suspended or revoked should be available for purposes of employment, education, medical care, and attendance at alcohol or drug treatment programs. Some states, like Missouri, also provide for the opportunity for restricted licenses for any other circumstance the court finds may create an undue hardship. In other states, restricted licenses are tied to mandatory participation in an alcohol or drug information or treatment program or left to the discretion of the department of motor vehicles.

  • Limit the revocation or suspension of licenses to six months for a first offense.


If states do revoke or suspend drivers’ licenses automatically for non-driving drug offenses, the mandatory period of revocation or suspension should be no longer than six months from the time of conviction. That is the standard set by the federal law, and there is no reason to increase it automatically for everyone in this category. Decisions to revoke or suspend a driver’s license for a longer period of time should be made on the basis of the specific facts.

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MODEL LAWS

States can use the law in Maryland as a model for limiting drug convictions that trigger revocation or suspension of drivers’ licenses to offenses related to driving and also for offering restricted licenses:

  • Maryland’s statute authorizes the revocation or suspension of licenses only when the offense is related to the ability to drive safely. It limits the length of revocation or suspension to not more than 60 days for a first offense and not more than 120 days for two or more offenses. To view the text of Maryland’s law, click here.

States can use the law in Missouri to provide restricted licenses that are available for a wider array of purposes:

  • Missouri provides restricted licenses when the operator is required to operate a motor vehicle for a business, occupation, or employment, medical treatment, attending school or other institution of higher education, attending alcohol or drug treatment programs; or any other circumstance the court finds may create an undue hardship. To view the text of Missouri’s law, click here.




ACTION ALERT

If your state is considering legislation to reform laws that suspend or revoke drivers’ licenses for people convicted of drug offenses, alerting grass roots allies and supporters and asking them to contact their legislators to support the legislation is an effective way to bring about change. Click here for a model Action Alert you can shape for your specific needs and use to seek grass roots support.


SAMPLE LETTER

Click here for a model Sample Letter you can send along with the Action Alert to help your grass roots supporters write to their elected officials urging them to support legislation reforming laws that suspend or revoke drivers’ licenses for people convicted of drug offenses. Once again you can shape this Sample Letter to meet your specific needs.

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