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March 4, 2014

Bill ends automatic license suspensions for many crimes

INDIANAPOLIS — Unpaid parking fines, falling behind on child support, drunken driving: So many offenses trigger a suspended driver’s license in Indiana that more than a half-million Hoosiers have lost their driving privileges.

In fact, driving on a suspended license is the most common charged offense, prosecutors say.

A bill passed by the House and Senate hopes to keep more drivers legally on the road, supporters say, by eliminating most automatic license suspensions for non-traffic offenses and giving judges more leeway over how the penalty is used. The bill also creates a “special use” license with strict conditions such as the use of technology that monitors when certain drivers get behind the wheel.

Supporters say the law goes a long way toward helping the high number of Hoosiers with suspended licenses get back on the road legally without compromising public safety. There are about five million licensed drivers in Indiana and more than 556,000 who currently have their licenses suspended, according to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles.  

“We’re not taking away the authority of judges to suspend the licenses of drivers who are dangerous and shouldn’t be on the road,” said Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, who authored the bill. “What we are doing is giving them the authority to fashion a sentence that fits that person.”

In Indiana, scores of crimes carry the penalty of lost driving privileges. Your license is suspended if you get caught driving drunk. You can also have your license pulled if you’re a teenager caught in a tavern or an adult behind on child support payments.

Most drug-related convictions also revoke driving privileges due to a 1993 federal law that required states to suspend licenses of convicted drug offenders.

Police and prosecutors say license suspensions are tagged onto so many crimes that it’s easy to lose a driver’s license but hard to gain one back – especially if you’re poor and can’t afford quickly mounting fines, fees and insurance costs.

“Over the years these penalties just keep building up, and after a while you realize, this is just not working,” said Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, who carried the bill in the Senate.

David Powell, head of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said he’s seen many people who had few transportation options other than a car during the 20 years he spent as chief prosecutor in a rural Indiana community. People who lost a license didn’t want to lose their job so they kept driving on a suspended license, without insurance, and risked getting caught.

Powell called driving on a suspended license “a crime of poverty.”

 “In my county, most of the cases I saw were people who couldn’t afford their reinstatement fees so they just kept driving and just kept getting caught and caught and caught,” he said.

That kind of decision has a spiral effect: The first time someone is caught driving with a suspended license, it’s a Class A infraction with a $150 fine. The second offense is a Class A misdemeanor with a fine up to $5,000 and up to a year in jail. A third time is Class D felony, with a jail term up to three years and a fine up to $10,000. Once more and it’s a Class C felony and up to 8 years in prison.

License reinstatement fees escalate from $100 to $300 for each offense.

The law currently allows judges to offer probationary or hardship licenses to some people who’ve had their driving privileges automatically suspended.

But the rules for granting those are prohibitively restrictive, said Chris Daniels, a lawyer with the Prosecuting Attorneys Council who helped draft the law with McMillin and Young.

“A big part of our goal is to keep the truly dangerous drivers off the road while letting people who’ve made a mistake but who can drive safely back on the road legally,” Daniels said. “Right now, we don’t have much of a mechanism in place to do that.”

The legislation, if signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, could allow judges to order someone caught drunk driving, for example, to apply for a special-use license with any number of restrictions. To monitor compliance, a judge could order a driver to use a high-tech, ignition-interlock device with a GPS system. The device tests the driver for sobriety – using a Breathalyzer – and tracks the driver’s movements.

In late 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urged states to adopt the use of such devices for first-time convicted drunken drivers, rather than simply suspending their licenses. The NHTSA had found too many people with suspended licenses are still on the road.

“We aren’t saying judges should just say, ‘Forget those past mistakes and go forth and drive,” McMillin said. “But there needs to be a mechanism for judges to allow people who’ve committed those crimes to work their way back into society.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ MaureenHayden


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