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How driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving are falling out of favor

a Prison Policy Initiative report
by Joshua Aiken
December 12, 2016

Introduction

In 1991, at the height of the War on Drugs, Congress introduced a new punishment for drug crimes.1 A new law threatened states with reduced highway funding if states did not begin automatically suspending the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug offense. In response, many states passed laws that added at least six months of license suspension on top of existing criminal penalties. The result is that large numbers of license suspensions clogged state agencies while hurting people.

Now that states are reconsidering the War on Drugs, many have started to repeal misguided drug laws like these. By now the majority of states have used a provision in the federal law that allows them to “opt-out” of these automatic license suspensions while still keeping their highway funding.2 Unfortunately, twelve states and Washington D.C. continue to enforce this obsolete and unnecessary drug law:3

Figure 1 More than 191,000 driver’s licenses are suspended every year for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The annual suspension numbers for Alabama and Mississippi are both estimated based on population size. For more information about how we determined these figures see our methodology.
Jurisdiction  Annual suspensions 
Alabama 8,293
Arkansas 4,178
D.C. 312
Florida 24,430
Iowa 4,898
Michigan 26,459
Mississippi 5,107
New Jersey 20,500
New York 17,697
Pennsylvania 19,969
Texas 13,004
Utah 7,553
Virginia 38,849

Every year these states suspend approximately 191,000 driver’s licenses for non-driving drug offenses.4 These license suspensions create needless harm: instead of helping people find jobs and stay out of the criminal justice system, these laws steer people back in. This national report sheds light on the consequences of this outdated policy and explains that automatic driver’s license suspensions are:

  1. Bad policy.
  2. A waste of taxpayer dollars.
  3. A serious roadblock for anyone convicted of a drug offense.

Possessing a valid driver’s license should reflect responsible driving; license suspensions are a logical tool for curbing bad driving-related behaviors. Irrationally, many states suspend driver’s licenses for a host of reasons unrelated to driving, from unpaid student loans and littering to drug convictions. These suspension laws disproportionately impact poor communities, communities of color, and communities that have few alternative means of transportation.

Thankfully, suspensions for drug offenses are increasingly falling out of favor. There is bipartisan momentum for reform; in the last three years, five state legislatures have overwhelmingly abolished automatic suspensions. Thousands of safe drivers have been able to get back on the road: people who can legally drive to the grocery store, to medical appointments, to their place of employment, and to pick up a child after school. It’s time for driver’s license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses to get out of the way.

I. Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses are bad policy.

Historically driver’s license suspensions targeted a range of unsafe behaviors behind the wheel, such as reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, or driving while impaired. Individuals convicted of these crimes had their license suspended and were often required to attend a mandatory driving course.5

Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses—wholly unrelated to driving—came about because of a different rationale. In an effort to be “tough on crime” politicians throughout the 1980s introduced punishments that they argued would deter crime.6 Legislators made more crimes punishable by the death penalty, introduced new mandatory minimum sentences, passed three-strike laws, and ensured that people convicted of drug offenses would be ineligible for food stamps their entire lives. In 1991, this harsh approach produced automatic driver’s license suspensions for any drug offense.

Punishments such as license suspensions, lawmakers argued, would discourage criminal activity. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators evaluated this claim concluding: “there is no evidence which indicates that suspending a person’s driving privileges for social non-conformance reasons is effective in gaining compliance with the reason for the original non-driving suspension.7

The idea that unnecessary punishments deter crime has largely been debunked. The National Institute of Justice, when summarizing “a large body of research related to deterrents,” found that “increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.”8 Nevertheless, lawmakers in 1991 took a punitive approach and incentivized states to immediately begin suspending licenses—officials expected almost 1 million drivers’ licenses to be swept up by this law.9

Fortunately, states began almost immediately opting out of the federal requirement.10 Some states made their license suspensions discretionary and others eliminated the use of suspensions as punishment altogether. Washington D.C. and twelve states, however, are still clinging to this vestige of the War on Drugs.

Needless suspensions impact poor communities most. Research in New Jersey found that while only 16% of the state population is low-income, 50% of the people who have their driver’s licenses suspended are low-income. More than 40% of drivers lost their jobs after the license was suspended.11 These suspensions create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making employment opportunities harder to access, driver’s license suspensions produce economic instability. Altogether, a suspended driver’s license translates to less social mobility: people living in poor communities stay poor.

Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses also hurt communities of color. Black and Latino people make up 76% of people convicted of federal drug crimes.12 Despite using marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and prescription drugs at similar rates, black adults are 2.5x more likely to be arrested for drug possession as white adults.13 Notably, 44% of America’s black population lives in one of the suspending jurisdictions.14

These racial dynamics are amplified in the context of driver’s license suspensions.15 People of color are less likely to have a license in the first place; one study found that 25% of black adults don’t have a driver’s license or form of military I.D.16 Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses only make racial disparities worse and prevent thousands of people of color from being able to legally drive.

II. Suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving reasons wastes government resources.

Driver’s license suspensions hurt more than the people who lose their licenses. When Congress made driver’s license suspensions a punishment for non-driving drug offenses in 1991, they forced road safety officials to devote countless hours enforcing drug laws instead of keeping our roads safe. Motor vehicle administrators and law enforcement officials themselves have argued that “our limited resources should be focused on dangerous drivers.”17 Regrettably, thousands of taxpayer dollars are being spent punishing safe drivers convicted of non-driving drug offenses.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators collected data from their members on the hidden costs of suspending driver’s licenses:

  • Colorado found that suspending driver’s licenses for offenses unrelated to driving consumed 8,566 hours per year of staff time — the equivalent of four full-time employees.18
  • Washington State in 2015 calculated that state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with license suspensions for non-driving offenses.19
  • Florida estimated that $72,000 a year is spent on paper, envelopes, and postage in order to correspond with people whose licenses were suspended for non-driving reasons.20
  • Arkansas found that their postage bill for non-driving suspensions amounted to $20,000 a year.21
  • Georgia expected that reforming its non-driving suspension laws would save $80,000 a year in postage costs alone.22

Needless suspensions especially burden law enforcement officials. It can take nine hours, according to AAMVA, for a police officer to make a roadside stop. Hours spent waiting for a tow-truck, transporting an individual to jail, filling out paperwork, making a court appearance, and other administrative duties remove highway safety officials from the roads.23 Montana’s Highway Patrol Colonel Mike Tooley explained: “if you’re busy with something that really isn’t traffic safety related, you’re taking time away from traffic safety.”24

These suspensions in actuality make our roads less safe. While police officers are transporting suspended drivers to jail or making a court appearance, their assigned traffic area may be left unwatched. Dangerous drivers, in turn, get to stay on the road. A study of driving records in eight states found that “less traffic enforcement of highway safety violations occur[s] as suspensions for social non-compliance increase.”25

Suspensions for drug offenses especially waste time. Law enforcement officials end up spending hours dealing with safe drivers: of the 191,000 suspensions for drug offenses, only a fraction have anything to do with driving. Pulling someone over for a broken taillight can spiral into a nine-hour ordeal for a police officer and jail time for the person who was driving while their license was suspended. 90% of driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses in New York had nothing to do with driving.26 99% of license suspensions for drugs in Virginia did not involve a motor vehicle.27 Driving with a suspended license is a serious offense, but too often law enforcement officials are punishing people who had their license suspended initially for non-driving reasons.

Judges and prosecutors are also burdened with cases that revolve around unnecessary license suspensions and they have been at the forefront of pushing for reforms. When Ohio got rid of its automatic suspension law for drug offenses, appellate and trial judges drafted and advocated for the bill and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association endorsed the legislation.28 One former prosecutor who helped usher in reform in Georgia explained, “we all know that the court system…[and] the dockets are full. There’s more to be done that can be accomplished with the resources available.”

License suspensions for non-driving drug offenses are a waste of state agencies’ money, attention, and time. Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste speaking out against non-driving license suspensions concluded: non-driving suspensions are “a drain on the system as a whole.”29

III. A suspended driver’s license means new barriers to reentry for anyone convicted of a drug crime.

One unnecessary driver’s license suspension could throw any person’s life off-track. But for people who are formerly incarcerated, or finishing probation/parole, the consequences are especially harsh. At the very time people should be finding stable housing, securing employment, and reconnecting with their communities, drug-related license suspension laws remove a critical avenue to success.

86% of Americans use a motor vehicle in order to reach their place of employment. Employers routinely require proof that individuals have a valid driver’s license in order to even be considered for a job.30 Valid licenses imply that an individual has a reliable means of getting to and from work. Job applications are routinely dismissed because applicants have a suspended license and cannot legally drive. For an employer, a license suspension implies risky, reckless and irresponsible behavior—even if the license was suspended for non-driving reasons.31 45% of people with driver’s license suspensions, in one study in New Jersey, reported losing their job and not being able to find a new one. For individuals who did find work, 88% reported a decrease in income.32

People with drug convictions are pressured to take whatever jobs are available: being employed is commonly a condition of probation and parole. For those struggling to find a job—in large part because they have no reliable transportation—can result in more time behind bars. Individuals on probation or parole can be incarcerated for refusing types of employment, quitting their job, or even being fired.33 Finding employment and earning a legal income, research shows, is key for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system.34

Deciding to drive with a suspended license is fairly common; it is estimated that 75% of people who have their licenses suspended continue to drive.35 Individuals with suspended driver’s licenses for non-driving reasons face criminal charges if they operate a motor vehicle, but they do so out of necessity. Like for most Americans, motor vehicles are their primary mode of transportation in all facets of their life. Finding and keep a job ultimately means using whatever transit is available to get to work. But driving comes at a heavy price for a person who not only has a criminal record for a drug crime, but also has a suspended license. One unsignaled lane change, paired with a suspended license and criminal record, could result in years behind bars.36

Public transportation is not always a viable alternative. Rural areas and small towns rarely have a functional bus or railway system.37 And many of the metropolitan areas that also lack comprehensive public transport systems are located in the thirteen jurisdictions that still automatically suspend licenses. In fact, of the 25 least accessible metropolitan areas identified by a Brookings Institution report on public transit, we found that almost half are located in the 12 still suspending states.

Figure 2 The vast majority of jobs, in 12 metropolitan areas where driver’s licenses are suspended for non-driving drug offenses, are not reasonably accessible for low-income and middle-income people who rely on public transit.
Metropolitan Area State(s) Ranking in Brookings Transit Accessibility Study of America’s 100 Largest Metropolitan Areas % of Jobs Low-Income People Can Reasonably Access using Public Transit % of Jobs Middle-Income People Can Reasonably Access using Public Transit
Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown New York 100th 8.8% 7.8%
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville Florida 99th 7.4% 8.7%
Youngstown-Warren-Boardman Ohio & Pennsylvania 97th 14.2% 15.6%
Birmingham-Hoover Alabama 94th 23.3% 26.0%
Richmond Virginia 92nd 26.5% 27.9%
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Texas 89th 19.0% 20.1%
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Texas 86th 16.6% 15.2%
Lakeland-Winter Haven Florida 85th 20.3% 22.9%
Orlando-Kissimmee Florida 83rd 15.8% 17.1%
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News Virginia &
North Carolina
78th 15.4% 17.6%
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Florida 77th 16.3% 18.0%
Jackson Mississippi 76th 38.4% 39.6%

Low-income communities are particularly disadvantaged; many people live in areas where public transit barely runs. For example, 93% of jobs in Palm Beach, Florida aren’t reasonably accessible to low-income communities relying on public transportation.38

Finding housing can prove difficult with a suspended driver’s license. While landlords cannot legally discriminate against people because of their race or religion, individuals with suspended licenses are disadvantaged. Many landlords request driver’s license numbers or a scanned copy of a driver’s license.39 This information can be used to confirm someone’s identity but also can be used to acquire driving records and criminal histories. While people are protected from employers and landlords accessing their driving records without consent, many give consent reluctantly, believing it’s required because the information is requested on applications.40

Even insurance companies can request old driving records from motor vehicle administrators if an individual gives them their driver’s license information. Driving records do not always distinguish between driving-related and non-driving suspensions and individuals can face higher premiums as a result.41

Furthermore, in order for people to get back on the road, all thirteen jurisdictions require a reinstatement fee. These reinstatement costs are layered on top of other court fines and fees. After having their license suspended for at least six months, individuals can be forced to pay more than $200 to have their license restored. In Virginia, where nearly 39,000 licenses were suspended for non-driving drug offenses in one year, individuals are required to pay $145 to have their licenses reinstated. Alabama demands $275.42 For someone earning minimum wage in Alabama, this means forking over almost a week’s paycheck—all in order to reinstate a driver’s license that should not have been suspended in the first place.

Figure 3 On top of having their driver’s license taken away for anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, individuals are charged as much as $275 in some states to regain their driving privileges.
Jurisdiction Length of Suspension Reinstatement Fee
Alabama Law mandates six months $275.00
Arkansas Law mandates six months $100.00
Washington D.C. Law mandates at least 6-month, up to 2 years $98.00
Florida Law presumes 1 year, can appeal after 6 months $45.00
Iowa Law mandates 180 days $20.00
Michigan Law mandates at least six months $125.00
Mississippi Law mandates six months $175.00
New Jersey Law mandates six months $100.00
New York Law mandates six months $50.00
Pennsylvania Law mandates six months $70.00
Texas Law mandates 180 days $100.00
Utah Law mandates six months $65.00
Virginia Law mandates six months $145.00

Reinstatement fees in states like Iowa, where the cost is $20, may seem nominal. But for individuals who are financially struggling, even such a seemingly-small amount can delay or prevent them from getting their driver’s licenses restored. Utah charges a $65 restoration fee for non-driving suspensions and ends up suspending six licenses for every one license they restore.43 Because license suspensions disproportionately impact people who are poor, reinstatement fees place unnecessary financial demands on people who are already economically disadvantaged.

Most importantly, these reinstatement fees and license suspensions have a human cost. Whether someone is driving to visit their family for the holidays, to pick a child up after soccer practice, or to a new job—having a valid driver’s license is essential for people to get back on their feet. Individuals convicted of non-driving drug offenses are trying to rebuild their lives; driver’s license suspensions just get in the way.

Conclusion

Our criminal justice system should not set people up to fail. Yet that is exactly what mandatory driver’s license suspensions do: they introduce new legal, economic, and social barriers for people who are in the midst of reentry. The continued enforcement of the 1991 mandatory driver’s license suspension law is bad policy. License suspensions are a counterproductive waste of government resources and time. Instead of making our roads safer, traffic safety officials are forced to address non-driving suspensions while unsafe drivers get to stay on the road. States can and should repeal this outdated law; it perpetuates the ugly legacy of the War on Drugs by disproportionately hurting poor individuals and communities of color. Moreover, it is time for state officials to reconsider all license suspensions triggered by offenses that have nothing to do with driving. Around the country, state legislators, governors, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, and communities have increasingly come together and passed bipartisan legislative reforms. Reform is not only possible; it makes sense.

Recommendations

  1. All states should reserve driver’s license suspensions for unsafe drivers and eliminate driver’s license suspensions for all non-driving offenses.
  2. Alabama, Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia should repeal their laws that automatically suspend licenses for drug offenses that are unrelated to driving and retroactively restore suspended driver’s licenses.
  3. Congress should repeal 23 U.S.C. 159, which created the federal incentive for states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for drug convictions.

Appendix

Suspensions and Statutes by State

Jurisdiction Number of suspensions (Year) Statute
Alabama 8,293 (our estimate, 2015) S 13A-12-290
Arkansas 4,178 (2015) S 27-16-915
D.C. 312 (2014) D.C. Code S 50-1403.02
Florida 24,430 (2010) S 322.055
Iowa 4,898 (2015) I.C.A. S 901.5
Michigan 26,459 (2010) S 333.7408a
Mississippi 5,107 (our estimate, 2015) Miss. Code Ann. S 63-1-71
New Jersey 20,500 (2006) N.J. Stat S 39:5-30.13 and N.J. Stat. S 2C:35-16
New York 17,697 (2015) NY CLS Veh & Tr S 510
Pennsylvania 19,969 (2010) 75 Pa. C.S. S 1532
Texas 13,004 (2015) Tex. Transp. Code S 521.372
Utah 7,553 (2015) Utah Code Ann. S53-2-220
Virginia 38,849 (2015) Va. Code Ann. S 18.2-259.1

Most Recent State-Level Reforms

  • Ohio (2016): Passed bipartisan legislation making license suspensions for drug offenses discretionary rather than mandatory. When the law passed, sponsor Bill Seitz told reporters “we’re not doing anything radical – we’re kind of catching up to the crowd.”44 (SB 204)
  • Massachusetts (2016): Passed bipartisan legislation unanimously, eliminating automatic driver’s license suspensions for all drug offenses with the exception of the trafficking of specified substances. Also repealed the $500 reinstatement fee. Judges now have discretion when adjudicating driving-related drug offenses. (SB 2021)
  • Georgia (2015): Passed bipartisan legislation that eliminated automatic driver’s license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses. (SB 100)
  • Delaware (2014): Passed bipartisan legislation that eliminated automatic driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses regardless of whether a motor vehicle was involved. (SB 217)
  • Indiana (2014): Passed bipartisan legislation that eliminated automatic driver’s license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses and gives judges discretion in driving-related cases. (HB 1279)
  • Oklahoma (2010): Passed bipartisan legislation that eliminated automatic driver’s license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses. (HB 2746)
  • Wisconsin (2009): Passed bipartisan legislation that eliminated automatic driver’s license suspensions for all drug offenses. (SB 36)

These seven states have joined 31 states that have eliminated their state level automatic driver’s license suspension law and/or utilized the federal provision, which allows states to opt-out of the federal mandate and still receive highway funding.

Methodology

This report focuses on the thirteen jurisdictions that are still automatically suspending driver’s licenses for most non-driving drug offenses. Our report focuses on the jurisdictions where a presumption of suspension for non-driving drug offenses still exists, so we did not address any states that have exempted themselves from the federal law but may still in full or in part suspend driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses. (For example, a compromise in Massachusetts’ reform bill still requires automatic suspensions for people convicted of a narrow class of drug offenses. Similarly, the reform in Ohio made these suspensions discretionary—judges can still impose license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses but it is not presumed that they should.)

To research the law in each state, law students Rebecca Neubauer and J. Miles Wobbleton at the University of North Carolina School of Law Pro Bono Program identified the key statutes in each state.

In order to learn how common suspensions are in each state and nationwide, we submitted open records requests to each of the thirteen jurisdictions for the number of suspensions for non-driving drug offenses and the cost of reinstatement. Seven jurisdictions (Arkansas, Washington D.C., Iowa, New York, Texas, Utah, and Virginia) gave us the number of suspensions for a recent year.

Three states (Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) couldn’t or wouldn’t provide this data, so we used 2010 data provided by those states for the American Association of Motor Vehicles Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers.

New Jersey denied our open records request, so we relied on 2006 figures from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Affordability and Fairness Task Force. In 2006, New Jersey gave courts the power to exempt individuals from a driver’s license suspension in “compelling circumstances”, but because the presumption of suspension remains in all cases, we concluded that the 2006 number was appropriate to use and certainly superior to no data at all.

Alabama and Mississippi said they couldn’t provide this data. We based our estimate of 8,293 for Alabama and 5,107 for Mississippi on the average suspension rate of the other 11 suspending jurisdictions, which we then applied to the population of Alabama and Mississippi to generate our state estimates. (To say it another way, we assumed that Alabama and Mississippi suspend drivers licenses for drug offenses as frequently as the other 11 states.) We deliberately choose this methodology as it was the most conservative and the most likely to underestimate the true figures. Given the many factors that can influence suspensions based on drug convictions, we thought it better, when making the argument that reform is necessary, to underestimate than to overestimate the laws’ impact. Had we used a different method — such as basing it on the number of drug commitments to state prisons in each state — we would produce numbers almost twice as high for these two states.

Our open records requests, the data provided, and any explanations for refusal to provide data are available below.

Acknowledgements

This report builds on the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2014 report by Leah Sakala wrote Suspending Common Sense in Massachusetts: Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving. Building on the legislative victory in Massachusetts, we set out to tell the national story. Rebecca Neubauer and J. Miles Wobbleton of the University of North Carolina Law Pro Bono Program generously worked to identify the key statutes in each state, and my former colleague Alison Walsh collected the state and federal data via open records requests. My colleagues at the Prison Policy Initiative: Peter Wagner, Bernadette Rabuy, Aleks Kajstura, Wendy Sawyer, and Kim Cerullo gave invaluable feedback and support to the production of this report.

I’m grateful to the state legislators and motor vehicle authorities who spoke to me about their state’s experience with repealing automatic suspensions of drivers license for drug offenses. I’m particularly grateful to Michael Mitchell, from the Georgia Department of Driver Services, for his insights on the fiscal impact of unnecessary license suspensions on state governments and to Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz for sharing how his state built a bipartisan coalition to “opt-out” of the federal law.

This report was supported by a generous grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and by the individual donors who support the Prison Policy Initiative’s ongoing research and advocacy.

About PPI

The Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is most well-known for sparking the movement to end prison gerrymandering and for its big picture data visualization “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.” The organization’s 2014 report “Suspending Common Sense in Massachusetts: Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving” led to reform in our home state.

Footnotes

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