States Re-Examine Automatic License Suspension Laws For Drug Crimes

By McCarton Ackerman 02/03/17

“If someone gets caught with drugs, the last thing you want to do is take away their ability to drive and get a job.”

Guy giving his license to a cop.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia currently have laws in place that automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of those convicted of drug crimes—but many of these states are now reconsidering the policy.

PBS reported that many of the individual state license suspension laws around drug convictions were put into place after a 1991 federal law threatened to withhold highway funding if they didn’t comply. However, 38 states opted out after a provision of the law allowed them to do so, Reason reported in December. Those who are convicted of driving while high still face consequences, but people whose drug crimes had nothing to do with driving can keep their licenses.

Several of the 12 states with the law still in place are now looking at ways to relax the policy. A bill in Florida seeks to reduce the suspension period from one year to six months, and ultimately remove it completely. Judges in Ohio now have discretion over whether to suspend driver’s licenses, while Washington, D.C. and Virginia are proposing legislation which would remove the suspensions entirely.

“If someone gets caught with drugs, the last thing you want to do is take away their ability to drive and get a job,” said Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who sponsored the legislation there. “Keeping them from being employed is at cross purposes with what our desire is.”

But the lack of transportation isn’t the sole issue. For those who are able to get their licenses reinstated, the cost of doing so—typically well over $100—may not be feasible. Recent data from Massachusetts shows that 5,431 licenses were suspended in 2014, but only 2,441 paid to get them back.

Several lawmakers have expressed concern that an inability to drive to work, and high fees once they can get their license back, might lead people back to drug use or crime.

“In most cases they don’t have the money. Five hundred dollars to someone who has just gotten out of jail is like a million dollars,” said Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler.

Despite this, some states aren’t willing to completely let go of their suspension laws. Massachusetts unanimously approved a bill last year that removed automatic license suspensions for lower-level offenses, but added an amendment calling for automatic suspensions of up to five years for anyone convicted of trafficking a drug besides marijuana.

“I have little sympathy for someone who sells fentanyl knowing it’s going to kill people,” said Massachusetts state Rep. Jim Lyons, a Republican who supported the amendment. “I wanted to help those struggling with disease to get back on their feet, but I didn’t want to give the impression in any way that we are easing our approach on drug traffickers in Massachusetts.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.