September 29, 2018
Paul Bell was a preacher in Georgia in the late 1960s. The weekend before Thanksgiving 1968, Bell was driving to one of the three churches he oversaw when 5-year-old Sherry Capes crashed her bicycle into the side of Bell’s car.
Bell didn’t have insurance. At the time, Georgia law provided that the registration and license of an uninsured motorist involved in an accident would be suspended unless the motorist posted a bond to cover the cost of any claim.
Bell fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court contending he was entitled to a hearing to show he was not at fault, before his license was suspended. In 1971, the High Court ruled that the holder of a driver’s license has a property interest in that license and that the license may not be suspended or revoked without due process of law.
The requirements of due process include notice and an opportunity to be heard at a hearing. Due process may also require an opportunity to confront witnesses and the right to be represented by counsel.
In Bell’s case the court concluded that once issued, a driver’s license is essential in the pursuit of his livelihood. Bell traveled to three different churches to serve his rural congregations. For everyone else, it meant a driver’s license was more than just a piece of paper; it had value and could not be arbitrarily taken.
Nearly 50 years later, Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that still imposes mandatory driver’s license suspensions for certain drug offenses, without due process of law, regardless of whether the crime has anything to do with driving.
Between 2011 and 2016, Pennsylvania suspended the driver’s licenses of about 149,000 people for “drug convictions unrelated to traffic safety,” according to the York Daily Record. Those individuals are essentially deprived of the ability to work, attend school or care for themselves and their family.
A driver’s license is not a privilege – it is a necessity. Individuals who live in rural areas with limited access to public transportation – and there are a lot of such areas in Pennsylvania – are essentially stranded without access to even basic necessities without the help of neighbors, family and friends.
A lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania by Equal Justice Under Law alleges that it is critical for people who have criminal convictions to maintain gainful employment, pursue education, keep doctor’s appointments and take care of family members. Imposing “additional and debilitating” measures against a driver whose license has been suspended “make(s) successful post-conviction rehabilitation a near impossibility.”
Even public safety is at risk when the legislature “piles on” drug offenders.
According to the lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, drivers with suspended licenses often drive out of necessity even while their licenses remain suspended, requiring law enforcement to devote time to policing noncompliance rather than focusing on legitimate threats to traffic safety.
A study of suspended and revoked driver’s licenses in Pennsylvania found “[t]here is significant and increasing frustration in the law enforcement community as a result of the increased administrative workload and time and energy required for non-driving related offenses,” suggesting that non-traffic related license suspensions burden public safety resources rather than increases public safety.
Gov. Tom Wolf supports legislation to eliminate non-driving related driver’s license suspensions. GOP State Rep. Rick Saccone is the primary sponsor of House Bill 163, which would remove driver’s license suspensions for non-driving offenses. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill with a vote of 192-3.
The measure is now in the Senate Transportation Committee.
The measure is a common sense plan for alleviating the burden on drivers, law enforcement and the courts. A significant majority of the states, including Ohio, have taken action to acknowledge the arbitrary act of taking an individual’s driving privileges – it is not only a bad idea but unconstitutional. Pennsylvania needs to follow suit.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino
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