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Why Does the Florida DMV Suspend Your License for Drug and Theft Convictions?

Driving is a major part of most of our livelihoods: so why does the DMV suspend your license for drug and theft convictions?

Florida Statutes section 322.055 states that “upon the conviction of a person 18 years of age or older for possession or sale of, trafficking in, or conspiracy to possess, sell, or traffic in a controlled substance, the court shall direct the department to revoke the driver license or driving privilege of the person.”

When someone is convicted of a crime (especially a low-order crime such as misdemeanor marijuana possession or shoplifting), they often get probation. They need to be able to drive to and from work in order to pay their costs of supervision, do community service, and to get themselves back on track in general. But these are the people who are targeted with the sanction of not being able to drive, of all things. Why did the legislature do this?

Apparently, the enactment of this law swept the nation in 1991, when the federal government threatened to withhold highway funds from states that did not enact this type of legislation, according to a research piece by Pew Charitable Trusts.

The best place to look to figure out what the legislature was thinking is often in the documents that are collected and created during the law-makers’ endeavors to pass a law. In this case, one document that sheds light on things is from the Florida House of Representatives’ Summary Bill Analysis. The summary states at its outset as follows:

Although originally intended as a sanction to address poor driving behavior, driver’s license suspensions and revocations are now commonly used as a means to punish individuals engaged in illegal behavior unrelated to the operation of a motor vehicle

The summary also identifies that taking people in the criminal justice system and denying them the ability to legally drive can have “self-perpetuating impacts:”

Self-perpetuating Impacts
Suspensions and revocations can be self-perpetuating. Drivers who have been suspended or revoked for non-driving-related offenses are often trapped within the system. Such drivers may not be able to afford to pay the original fine, and may lose their ability to legally get to and from work as a result of the suspension. Many make the decision to drive while suspended or revoked. The suspension results in increased financial obligations through new requirements such as reinstatement fees, court costs and other penalties

The summary for the legislators also included a study from another state, which showed that in New Jersey, “42 percent of drivers lost their job after their driving privilege was suspended. Of those drivers, 45 percent were unable to find new employment. Of those that were able to find another job, 88 percent reported a decrease in income.” So when people talk about being set up to fail, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

Currently, the criminal offenses that will result in a license revocation include being convicted for any drug offense, for misdemeanor theft, for sale of alcohol to minors, and for failing to appear in court on a worthless check charge.

Suspending someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay child support may be a good enforcement mechanism to keep people paying their obligations. But denying people the ability to legally drive because they’ve been convicted of crimes completely unrelated to driving seems unnecessarily harsh and arbitrary. And it obviously has a disparate impact on those lower down on the socio-economic ladder and on people and communities of color.

Judicial “Escape Valve”
Fortunately, a recent change in the law amended the period of suspension from two years down to one year. And, perhaps more importantly, a provision in the law now reads:

However, the court may, in its sound discretion, direct the department to issue a license for driving privilege restricted to business or employment purposes only, as defined by s. 322.271, if the person is otherwise qualified for such a license.

So this means that unless your license is already suspended for some other reason, if you’re convicted of one of these charges, you can ask the judge to enter an order directing the DMV to give you a “business purposes only” license during the course of the suspension period. The court is required to make a specific, articulated determination in each case like this as to whether giving a person a “business purposes only” license is appropriate. And after 6 months you can petition the DMV to restore your driving privileges. Of course, the DMV is going to charge you reinstatement fees: the legislative analysis that was discussed earlier noted that in fiscal year 2012-2013, “DHSMV received approximately $5.5 million in revenue from reinstatement fees.” So, at the end of the day, punishing low-level offenders with driving sanctions continues to basically be a tax on the poor, especially in areas where public transit is not a realistic alternative to driving to work.

Many states are moving away from this, and apparently now up to 40 states have taken advantage of a federal provision allowing them to “opt out” of imposing these harsh suspensions: unfortunately, Florida is not one of them. Even Georgia did away with these punishments in 2015. And, as all Floridians know, when you’re falling behind Georgia in anything, it’s time to re-think your strategies!

Hopefully, there will come a day when this law is changed. Until then, the best thing to do is to be aware of your rights when it comes to trying to limit the damage caused by having one’s driver’s license suspended for non-driving-related criminal offenses like drugs, theft, and worthless checks.

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