Legislation would give more deference to state laws and prevent the suspension of nearly 200,000 drivers licenses a yearCongressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) with Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Mia Love (R-UT) have introduced The Better Drive Act, legislation removing the federal mandate that demands states to suspend the driver’s license of individuals with a marijuana possession conviction.
Under current law, any drug conviction, regardless of whether or not a motor vehicle was involved, results in an automatic suspension of the individual’s driving privileges for a period of six months. To date, 38 states have sensibly opted out of this mandate. Yet 12 states, home to more than 122 million residents – including Texas, New York, Michigan and Florida — have not done so.
Nearly 200,000 driver licenses are still suspended each year for these non-driving offenses, reports Joshua Aiken at the Prison Policy Initiative. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), nearly 4 out of every 10 suspended drivers who lost their license following a conviction for a drug or other type of offense were suspended for non-highway safety reasons. More than 30 criminal justice reform, addiction recovery, faith and civil rights organizations have signed a letter to Congress supporting full repeal of this federal mandate.
“Individuals charged with minor marijuana possession ought not to face the undue burden of the loss of one’s driving privileges for activities unrelated to driving,” said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “This punishment is disproportionate and unrelated to the offense and it needlessly hinders a defendant’s ability to rehabilitate and to be a successful member of our community.”“Today I introduced the bipartisan Better Drive Act,” wrote Congressman O’Rourke on Medium. “This bill would repeal a law reducing highway funding for states if they did not automatically suspend drivers licenses of anyone convicted of a drug offense.”
“Finding employment and earning legal income is crucial for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system,” Congressman O’Rourke wrote. “Further, we know that license suspensions undermine recovery efforts for those with drug use problems and the formerly incarcerated.”
Enacted more than 25 years ago as a part of the so-called “War On Drugs,” this mandate imposed on states does not improve highway safety or help people address substance use, according to NORML. Rather, it has the opposite effect, as this mandate ends up costing minor offenders their ability to get to work and to school, and causes other undue economic hardships.
This repeal of the federal mandate would have no impact on states ability to suspend licenses for drug offenses or enforce impaired driving statutes.
“Limiting an individual’s ability to get around because of a drug law violation is excessively punitive and stifles efforts to find employment, take care of family responsibilities, and access health care and support networks,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy associate of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “It was 1991 when Congress passed a law requiring states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for a drug offense, and the catch phrase then was ‘smoke a joint, lose your license.’ In the years since, the harsh impact on people trying to get back on their feet is shining a light on just how counterproductive the war on drugs has been and continues to be.”Advocates point out that the ability to legally drive is essential to maintaining employment, housing and sobriety, which are also often conditions placed upon individuals as a condition of court-ordered supervision post-conviction and release. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 86 percent of people surveyed use a vehicle to get to work and employers often require proof of a valid driver’s license to even be considered for certain jobs.
Many communities and most rural areas do not have access to public transportation, including many of the states that still follow the federal mandate. In fact, almost half of the 25 least accessible metropolitan areas are within the 12 states that are still automatically suspending licenses for drug convictions. This makes the ability to legally drive essential to maintaining employment and meeting responsibilities.
Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately hurt by this antiquated federal mandate. All of the states that suspend driver’s licenses after a drug conviction have reinstatement fees, as high as $275, on top of court fines and fees. Moreover, 44 percent of the United States’ African American population lives in one of the 12 remaining jurisdictions that suspend driver’s licenses.
“Despite using drugs at similar rates to whites, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested and convicted for drug offenses, which makes them more likely to be impacted by driver suspension laws,” said Adesuyi. “Driver license suspension laws hit the most marginalized people the hardest without any actual benefit to public safety. A drug conviction should not bar you from being able to pick up your kids from school or go to work. Repeal is long overdue.”