Ending License Suspensions: A Small Step With A Big Impact On Criminal Justice Reform
I am a private criminal defense attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While that does mean defending people accused of drug offenses, violent crimes and theft, a large portion of my time is spent helping people with driver’s license issues. I take on a lot of DUI work, but something that surprised me when I got into this business was the number of people who had their driver’s licenses suspended. And I am not talking a 15- or 30-day suspension. I am talking multi-year license suspensions, some for 5 to 10 years. Some clients of mine have 15 years or more of license suspension time to serve! Then, I did some research and found out more than 7 million people have their license suspended for minor offenses.
You may not think this is a problem. But it is. It is huge problem. Data shows these suspensions can impact black and latino drivers the most, but it greatly damages all drivers, regardless of race. First, let me explain how people end up with multi-year suspensions. Then, I will explain why it is a big problem that damages people’s ability to succeed in America today. After that, I will tell you what should be done about it.
In Pennsylvania, the state where I live and practice, it is easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle of license suspensions. I am using Pennsylvania as my example, but these arguments resonate across the country as most states have identical or similar rules. Usually, a person will start out with a minor legal violation. For example, a driver may get cited by the police for driving without an updated registration. Many people do not know how to properly respond to a citation such as this. Also, they may not have the money for a lawyer. And if you do not respond to certain traffic citations in Pennsylvania, the court will automatically suspend your driver’s license. This can happen very suddenly. Then, perhaps months after the original violation, the driver will get a new citation for driving with a suspended license. If the driver ends up convicted of that violation, and many people do, voila: they are rewarded with a full one-year license suspension. Just imagine getting your license suspended for one year, because you forgot to renew your registration. It happens. A lot. Remember, 7 million people have driver’s license suspensions in the U.S.
In another example of bad law, up until very recently, Pennsylvania would suspend people’s driver’s licenses for possession of drugs. Possession of drugs has nothing to do with driving. These people were simply caught with a little bit of drugs, and they lost their license because of it. Not just hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, but many people got their license suspended for possession of marijuana. And remember, I am not talking about DUI’s or driving under the influence here. Simple possession that occurs on the street or at a party could lead to a license suspension. And then, as described above, people get caught driving while suspended after pleading guilty to the original offense. This only leads to the courts giving them more license suspensions. Getting caught driving on a suspended license happens repeatedly for some people. And oftentimes, it all starts with a very minor crime or traffic violation. These repeat offenses lead people to have their license suspended for years, and sometimes for decades or longer. And it can ruin their lives.
You may think this is not a problem. Suspending a license may sound like a good punishment for people caught with drugs or who do not respond to citations. But it is not. It is not a good punishment because it can place otherwise productive people into an unforgiving cycle that can ruin their entire life. The most dire consequence of a suspended license is usually loss of work. In America, if you lose your license, you probably lose your job. The majority of Americans commute to their job in a car or automobile. Only few cities have a public transportation system that can support people without a license. Suspending people for minor offenses hurts their ability to earn a living, feed themselves and provide for their family. It also hurts employers who badly need employees to be able to drive to their shift. Overall, this is painful for the American economy. I have had clients risk trials and jail in order to protect their license. These are usually otherwise safe drivers, who made a procedural mistake. It is ridiculous.
Next, suspending someone’s license can put other drivers at risk. Now, I get it. If your license is suspended, you should not be driving. But go back to the last paragraph. Many people cannot eat or earn a living without driving. So they drive anyways. And if unlicensed drivers get into an auto accident, it doesn’t just hurt that person. If someone else is injured in the accident, the innocent victim may have a harder time recovering for their injuries. This difficulty arises because insurance may not cover drivers who are on a suspended license. Thus, innocent victims of car accidents can be left without an avenue to recover because they got hit by an unlicensed driver. This is another negative effect on our society as a whole from criminal license suspensions.
Finally, these license suspensions can lead people down a path of lawlessness that they otherwise would have never went down. They make the decision to drive without a license, and if they get caught enough times, they can go to jail. There is evidence to suggest that minor offenders that go to jail will end up re-offending at a rate greater than those who go to jail for serious offenses. This cycle of suspension can create new criminals who may have never existed otherwise.
All in all, the benefits that society seems to gain by suspending someone’s license: punishment and deterrence, appear to be far outweighed by the damage caused to our economy, and to the lives of these people. Again, we are not talking about violent criminals or major felony offenders. Those people need to go to jail and to be punished. We are talking license suspensions for minor violations or offenses that are not related to driving. If we want to keep people out of the criminal justice system, and there are good reasons to do so, looking hard at when and why we suspend people’s licenses is a terrific place to start.
Some things we can do instead of suspending people’s license are as follows: mandate education and mandate community service. Community service is a tried-and-true feature of the criminal justice system. Sentencing people to community service can benefit the community and also teach someone the value of giving back. Mandated education is a little different. This does not occur for minor offenses or traffic offenses very often. But it should. Many people get license suspensions because they were never properly educated on how to keep their vehicle registered or in compliance with local laws. By educating people on these offenses, we reduce the chance of non-compliance in the future.
Now, this article focuses mainly on minor offenses, but in my opinion, even people convicted of driving under the influence should not have automatic or immediate license suspensions. Instead, license suspensions should still be a punishment for DUI’s or DWI’s. But all offenders should be allowed to drive if they place a “breath detecting” ignition interlock on the vehicle. This device does not allow people to drive if they have consumed alcohol. This serves the purpose of preventing driving while intoxicated but also giving a person the ability to drive and keep their job.
Criminal Justice Reform is a hot topic in America right now and it should be. There are real opportunities to improve our country by taking a hard look at American justice. We should reduce or eliminate license suspensions as part of this reform push. Many people get their license suspended for technical violations, minor offenses, or completely unrelated offenses. This can lead people into a cycle of suspensions that damages the economy, innocent victims, and the people themselves. The country can still reach the goals of punishment and reform for these offenders even if we eliminate license suspensions. By mandating education, community services, or even other forms of “non-suspension” punishment, the law can reach its’ goals without ruining lives. Sometimes small steps make a huge difference. I believe that is the case here.