Back in 1990, when the nation was still deep into the “war on drugs,” Congress passed a law that compelled states to suspend the driver’s licenses of all convicted drug offenders or risk losing part of their federal highway funds. States could opt out only if their legislature and governor went on the record opposing the law.
At the time, it was seen as a major public policy decision that, in essence, said this: There is a clear societal interest in keeping people off the road who have committed a crime, even if that crime has nothing to do with a person’s ability to drive safely.
In 1996, Congress came back again with the same remedy for “deadbeat” parents.
The federal welfare-reform bill made all states grant courts or government agencies the power to suspend or restrict a driver’s license for someone overdue on their child support payments.
Since then, states have used the penalty for a whole slew of offenses unrelated to traffic crimes. Drop out of school, get caught defacing a building with graffiti or sneaking into a bar as a minor — those are just a few of the offenses that can put your driver’s license at risk in Indiana.
Is that good public policy? That’s a question that’s being asked by some members of the legislature’s Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, which is engaged in the ongoing (and thankless) effort of rewriting Indiana’s criminal code.
One factor driving the question is the estimated 350,000 Hoosiers who’ve had their licenses suspended or revoked, triggering them to lose their car insurance and driving privileges. Too many are out there driving anyway. Some are joy-riding, but others just need to get to work or school. If caught, the penalties — including escalating license-reinstatement fees — quickly pile up.
Republican State Rep. Jud McMillin, a former deputy prosecutor from Brookville and a study committee member, said the question is complex. Pulling someone’s license because someone’s a threat to public safety makes sense. But pulling the license of one who isn’t a threat also creates an economic barrier for people with criminal records who have paid their debt to society and want to become a productive, tax-paying citizen.
Other states are wrestling with this issue.
In May, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling striking down a law that allows the state to suspend a driver’s license of anyone who is three months behind in child-support payments. The appeals court rejected the district ruling’s decision that noted in part that the law was more harmful to people who live in rural areas where public transportation is rarely available.
In Florida, the ACLU is suing the state over a law that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically suspend the driver’s license of someone who hasn’t paid court fees. The ACLU argues the penalty harms the poor and has caused more than 211,000 Floridians to lose their licenses that way.
Earlier this month, a local sheriff in Massachusetts urged his state legislature to pass a law that would let drug offenders keep their licenses after a conviction. He argued that not having a driver’s license makes recidivism more likely for newly released inmates because they have a difficult time getting their licenses back and paying their reinstatement fees.
Back here in Indiana, public policy makers are raising similar concerns. “We’re worshiping at the altar of deterrence,” said Larry Landis, who’s on the study committee as head of the Indiana Public Defender Council. “We keep ratcheting up penalties, saying, ‘If people know they’re going to lose their license, then surely they won’t do X.’ It’s based on the mythology that if we make the penalties so severe, nobody in their right mind is going to commit this offense. If that were true, there would be no crime of any sort.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse Bureau for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden @indianamediagroup.com.