Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Close to 150,000 people have lost driving privileges in Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2016 because of a policy dating back to a 1991 federal law.
Russell Harold, 52, has been missing doctor appointments he needs for treatments for his disability, and his personal finances have taken a dive because his driver’s license is suspended. Harold’s business was traveling to people’s homes to clean them, which earned him roughly $700 a week before the suspension. He makes only a little above that much monthly now, and he can only get to people’s homes if they transport him and his cleaning tools there. He was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana and the anxiety prescription drug Xanax last year, and though that arrest had nothing to do with operating a vehicle, his license was suspended for two years as part of his sentence.
Pennsylvania is one of a dozen states, and Washington, D.C., that will revoke a person’s driver’s license for up to two years for a conviction in a drug-related crime, even if that crime has nothing to do with driving. Close to 150,000 people have lost driving privileges in Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2016 because of that policy. This is “irrational,” argues the legal non-profit Equal Justice Under Law, which is suing the state of Pennsylvania on behalf of Harold and another man, Sean Williams, whose employment and family responsibilities are also jammed up due to a driver’s license suspension from a drug crime conviction. The state has not responded to the lawsuit yet, and declined comment to CityLab about it.
Equal Justice Under Law is arguing that these suspensions do nothing to promote traffic safety or even to drive down crime; instead, they only drive drug offenders into poverty by compromising their abilities to make a living. If anything, that kind of economic hardship, such as what Harold is now facing, ends up pushing many into a life of crime, by resorting to drug-selling or theft to make up for whatever ends they can’t meet due to their inability to drive, the lawyers argue. They also argue that the policy violates equal protection rights, largely because there is no corresponding license suspension penalty for crimes that actually do threaten road safety, such as texting and driving, failing to yield to pedestrians, and, in some instances, speeding. There’s also a racial component, as the complaint reads:
Defendants’ license suspension scheme is problematic not only for how it burdens, but whom it burdens. Pennsylvania’s impoverished neighborhoods and predominantly Black neighborhoods are more likely to be policed than affluent or white ones, and Black Pennsylvanians are more likely to be stopped, frisked, and arrested for drug possession than any other group. Instead of operating a scheme that targets dangerous drivers, Defendants’ scheme is based on drug convictions — a measure that disproportionately represents people living in poor or predominantly Black neighborhoods, thus disrupting family life and making employment, healthcare, and education substantially more difficult to access for a particular subset of targeted people.
In other words, the disadvantages of having no license become compounded for low-income African Americans and Latinos. New Jersey’s Department of Transportation showed in a 2007 study that 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs when their license was suspended, and 45 percent of those people weren’t able to find new jobs afterwards. Where the gig and sharing economies have sought to capture those left behind by the traditional workforce economy, having a suspended license essentially wipes away one’s ability to work at leading companies such as Uber or Lyft. Meanwhile, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has stated that there is no evidence that suspending driver’s licenses leads to making people more law compliant.
So then how did a penalty like this, that has nothing to do with drugs, become a mandatory attachment for all drug conviction sentencings in Pennsylvania? The answer, like many harsh and inexplicable punishments in the U.S., is tied to the infamous War on Drugs. A federal law passed in 1991, during the era when Congress portended to get tough on drug crimes, threatens highway funding in states that do not suspend the licenses of people convicted for drug crimes. Said then-Rep. Gerald Solomon of New York when testifying in support of that law in 1990:
Yes, we should do everything possible to interdict drugs coming into the country. Yes, we should provide adequate funds to treat addicts. And yes, we should jail—and in some cases even execute—those involved in the sale of drugs in this country. … But let’s not kid ourselves. That is not enough. ...Taking away driver’s licenses in an automobile-oriented society will show that we are serious.
States are able to opt out of the license suspension policy thanks to a provision in that law, and most have. But Pennsylvania has kept its law on the books, along with 11 other states, and Washington, D.C. The Equal Justice Under Law complaint says the law is based on an “animus toward drug offenders.” Such antipathies have since softened for people struggling with drug problems (well, maybe not in the current U.S. Justice Department. And Alaska). But Pennsylvania renewed its driver’s license law as recently as last summer. Meanwhile, it is not cheap to have those licenses reinstated, as the chart from Prison Policy Initiative shows below:
There is plenty of opposition among Pennsylvania’s leading officials against keeping this law on the book. Several state lawmakers, including Republican Rick Saccone have introduced bills to reverse this, or to create exceptions for people who need their car for work, school, or to see a doctor.
Diosdado Arroyo, the license control division manager for the Bureau of Driver Licensing at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said at a hearing that his department’s position is “that driving privilege suspensions should be imposed only as a consequence for traffic violations and actions that threaten traffic safety.”
Jeff Nobers, the executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania testified at that hearing that, “On a daily basis, the biggest issue we face is recruiting people into the construction trades. One of the big barriers we face is the lack of a driver’s license.”
Pennsylvania Govenor Tom Wolf has also stated that he supports the pending legislation to get rid of the driver’s license suspension mandates. There is federal legislation pending to eliminate the federal law that threatens to withhold highway funds in states that won’t do these suspensions. A 2016 study from the Prison Policy Initiative found that besides the fact that these punishments don’t work for reducing crime, states have also found them to be a waste of tax dollars
“Our criminal justice system should not set people up to fail,” reads the report. “Yet that is exactly what mandatory driver’s license suspensions do: They introduce new legal, economic, and social barriers for people who are in the midst of reentry.”