Matthew T. Mangino
August 7, 2020
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 that before his license was suspended, he was entitled to a hearing to show he was not at fault. 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 Supreme Court concluded that once issued, a driver’s license was essential in the pursuit of Bell’s 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.
Access to a driver’s license has an enormous impact on prisoner reentry. More than 620,000 people are released from federal and state prisons each year and return to their communities. While these and other individuals have already served their prison or jail sentences, are currently serving probation or parole, or have completely exited criminal supervision, they still face numerous barriers to reintegrating into society. Those barriers are known as the collateral consequences of their conviction.
According to the National Institute of Justice, there are more than 44,000 collateral consequences nationwide, including obtaining a driver’s license.
Nearly 50 years after Bell’s case, a number of states still impose 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. In fact, Title 23 of the United States Code provides for withholding federal funding from any state that does not revoke or suspend the driver’s licenses of individuals convicted of drug offenses.
A study conducted by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators revealed that more than one third of all driving privilege suspensions are for non-highway safety reasons.
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 across the country - are essentially stranded without access to even basic necessities without the help of neighbors, family and friends.
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation eliminating driver’s license suspensions for non-driving infractions he said, “We need to break down even more unnecessary and especially difficult roadblocks to success and stability. Having a valid driver’s license often is the key to finding and keeping a job.”
The recent efforts to reverse the barriers to obtaining a driver’s license didn’t stop with Pennsylvania. California followed, ending the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid traffic fines, while officials in Michigan wiped out millions of dollars in debt from unpaid “driver responsibility fees” that led to thousands of license suspensions.
On July 1, a new Illinois law took effect that eliminates driver’s license suspensions for most non-moving violations, reinstating driving privileges for thousands of people.
Progress is being made, but there is more work to be done.
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 at @MatthewTMangino.
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