But some big states continue the destructive practice

More than 200,000 people still lose driving privileges every year for drug offenses unrelated to driving, according to a new analysis by The Clemency Report. Most driver’s license suspensions are for marijuana possession, although all drugs and offense types are covered.

The good news: The two-decade old federal policy seems to be falling out of favor. Click here for a map. Since 2008, seven states have dropped mandatory license suspensions for drug offenses (not related to driving), according to Federal Highway Administration records.  Reasons: administrative cost, harm to highway safety and simple fairness. 

The four  latest states to abandon the federal mandate are Vermont (2009), Wisconsin (2010), South Carolina (2011) and Utah (2011). Three other states reported to the FHA that they suspended licenses in one recent year but not today: Connecticut (2011), Hawaii (2011) and Colorado (2013).

That brings the number of states that have stopped the practice to 34, including all Western states and the New England  states (except Massachusetts, in part).

The bad news: 16 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico,  still enforce the federal mandate and these jurisdictions are home to 48% of the country’s residents.

Even most of these states appear to be scaling back the suspension policy.

 

In New York, license suspensions for drug offenses fell from 33,284 in 2009 to 23,375 in 2013, a 30% drop, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.  So far this year, drug-related suspensions have fallen another 10%, based on data through August 2014.

Florida reports a 22% decline from 2010 to 2013, when the suspended 19,024 licenses for non-driving drug offenses. The Florida legislature is considering a law to scale back suspensions further. Last year, New Jersey’s legislature approved exempting drug offenders who had no other form of transportation.

An exception to the trend: Ohio. By the measure that state uses, non-driving drug offense suspensions has increased 35% from 2009 to 2013. A total of 135,126 Ohio drivers had license suspensions as of April 2013 caused, at least in part, by non-driving drug offenses. This large number includes drivers who had licenses suspended for other reasons, such as drunk driving, in addition to a drug offense. (Ohio’s numbers reflect everyone suspended on a certain date. They are not directly comparable to “suspensions given in a specific year” those reported by other states.)

Drug war relic

Mandatory license suspension is a senselessly destructive drug war relic that was tucked into a 1992 federal highway bill by a liberal senator trying to show he was tough on drugs during a tough re-election battle.

The political maneuver helped the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., (left) get re-elected in 1994 but left a legacy of long-term damage to the poor and minority communities that he purported to care about.

Research has found the mandatory driver’s license suspensions for drug possession make roads more dangerous by diverting resources away from highway safety enforcement. In addition, driver’s license suspensions have been particularly devastating to the working poor. Forty-two percent lose their jobs following a license suspension.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — the trade group for state DMVs and BMVs — vigorously opposes “social conformance” driver’s licenses suspensions because of the harm to safety and society. The AAMVA documented the damage in an 80-page report published in 2013.

An odd geographic alliance keeps the antiquated practice alive: six big Northern states and the Confederate South. The suspending jurisdictions are home to 141 million people, including most of the nation’s minority population and a disproportionate share of the poor.

Driver’s license suspensions for drug possession: A state-by-state list

States that don’t suspend are in green. States that do suspend are in blue. State in yellow suspends except marijuana possession.

 

The policy is a classic example of how a seemingly race- and class-neutral drug law gets translated, in practice, into a legal hammer against poor people, especially blacks, Hispanics and blue-collar whites. In addition to facing job loss and drug possession penalties, the poor must pay to get their driver’s licenses reinstated and often see auto insurance rates rise even though the suspension that had nothing to do with driving.

The drug war is under-appreciated contributor to growing income inequality.

Since 1992, as evidence of the policy failure mounted, states have abandoned license suspensions for drug offenses. This year, Ohio’s Republican legislature is moving toward repeal. Florida’s Republican legislature is considering giving judges more leeway.

But these changes are far from certain. Most laggard states keep the mandatory suspensions on the books out of ignorance, inertia and indifference, not political opposition. Few legislators know the law exists, much less why it exists. The working poor, most harmed, have little clout in the nation’s statehouses.

Even states that should know better — such as New York — still follow the 1992 federal highway bill. Southern states, which claim to favor decentralized government and chafe at federal mandates, still mindlessly mimic the federal mandate.

Massachusetts voters stopped most license suspensions in 2008 by approving a law that made possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, subject to a fine of up to $100 and no other penalties. However, Massachusetts still suspends for all other non-driving drug offenses, including those involving marijuana. The legislature is considering a law that would stop all non-driving drug suspensions and end the requirement that those who had licenses pay a $500 reinstatement fee.

 

The solution

Lautenberg’s 1992 amendment — now Section 159 of Title 23 of federal law — requires every state to pass a law giving mandatory six-month driver’s license suspensions to everyone convicted of any drug offense, even misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses. If a state doesn’t comply, the federal government reduces the state’s federal highway funding by a certain amount,  variously estimated at 8% to 10%.

However, states can opt out at no cost and without penalty. Thirty-four states do just that.

To opt out, a state legislature and governor must approve an opt-out resolution. The resolution is sent to the Federal Highway Administration. The feds certify that a state has properly opted out. States then can change their laws without financial penalty.

It’s a laborious, multi-step process that can take two years from start to finish.

In practice, the license suspension requirement is sometimes ignored at the local level. Pot offenses are changed to disorderly conduct charges. Some judges don’t do it, regardless of the law, because of the time, cost or unfairness of imposing the penalty.

The federal government requires state governments to pass license suspension laws. Cities aren’t required to do so. In some states, this matters a lot. In others, it does not.

In Ohio, two-thirds of the state’s 11 million people live in home-rule municipalities, empowered b the state Constitution to control most local offenses, beyond the reach of the state legislature. This creates a patchwork. Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton never suspend licenses. Columbus, Akron and Cincinnati always suspend, as do unincorporated rural areas that follow state law.

The numbers: an analysis

The federal government doesn’t collect data on how many driver’s licenses are suspended under its policy. To fill this gap, The Clemency Report used available state data to compute a national estimate.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators reports drug offense driver’s license suspensions in 2010 were:

  • Virginia — 29,086.
  • New York — 28,679.
  • Florida — 24,430.
  • Texas — 23,821.
  • Pennsylvania — 19,969.
  • Arkansas — 4,610.
  • Iowa — 4,056.

The other suspending jurisdictions –Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Ohio, New Jersey, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico — did not report numbers to AAMVA. However, based on their population size, The Clemency Report estimates that drug users suffered 211,000 in 2010 for non-driving offenses.

New York’s figures show how few drug-related license suspensions are related to driving — perhaps 10%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By contrast, the drug alcohol generates many driving-related license suspensions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Thanks to Peter Bucci of the New York Department of Motor Vehicles for the statistics.)

 

 

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