Fewer States Automatically Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Drug Convictions

More states are opting out of suspending licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving.

More states are opting out of suspending licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving.

By Christopher Zoukis

Since 2009, seven state legislatures have acted to remove themselves from a 1991 federal law that since 1994 has threatened to reduce federal highway funds to states which did not provide at least a six-month driver’s license suspension for people convicted of drug crimes.

Known at the time of enactment as a “use and lose” measure, the federal law (23 U.S. Code 159) is these days increasingly seen as an outdated “war on drugs” holdover which does little, if anything, to achieve its stated aims, and may actually impede them, while creating serious barriers to re-entry into society for people with histories of drug convictions. Opponents of the federal law claim it burdens courts and detracts motor vehicle agencies from more important work directly related to highway safety.

Despite the clear trend in recent years for states to end or modify their driver’s license suspension laws, or to take advantage of a provision in the federal law allowing states to opt out of suspending licenses of people convicted of crimes unrelated to driving and still keep highway funds, 12 states and the District of Columbia still require license suspension for drug convictions unrelated to driving.

Since some major population centers are among the dozen states with such laws still on the books – including New York, Texas, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia – an estimated 122 million people live under such laws, and almost 200,000 lose their driver’s licenses each year for non-driving violations.

But it’s growing increasingly likely even more states will decouple drug convictions from driver’s license suspensions – and some in Congress are even backing federal bills to that end.

As recently as 2004, 27 states automatically suspended or revoked driver’s licenses for at least some drug convictions. Last year alone, legislators in Ohio and Massachusetts gave judges the power to decide whether or not to suspend driver’s licenses after drug convictions, following similar actions in earlier years by Georgia, Delaware, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. Virginia, one of the 12 states still restricting driver’s licenses after drug convictions, is set to opt out starting this July, and others are considering similar actions. Some states have also eliminated or reduced the fees previously required to reinstate suspended licenses.

And a bill — House of Representatives 1952, with the short title of the “Better Drive Act” —  was introduced in the House of Representatives April 5 by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). Its six backers are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. The main sponsor argues his bill, by making it possible for people with drug convictions unrelated to driving to maintain the driver’s licenses they will likely need to find employment and get to their jobs, would ease social re-entry and fight recidivism.

The 10-line bill would remove the federal law withholding some federal highway funds from states which do not automatically suspend driver’s licenses after a drug conviction. The repeal bill, if adopted, would not prevent states from suspending licenses for drug-impaired driving, but would only stop automatic license suspension for offenses not related to driving. The bill to repeal the federal mandate would not restrict states’ ability to suspend or revoke licenses for drug-impaired driving offenses.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.