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Joint letter in support of federal law that suspends drivers licenses - April 2017

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April XX, 2017
Dear Member of Congress,
The undersigned organizations urge you to actively support the repeal of 23 U.S.C. 159, a federal
law that mandates states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses of people convicted of a drug
offense. States that do not comply risk losing a portion of their federal highway aid funds.
Although 23 U.S.C. 159 provides states with the ability to maintain compliance without
suspending driver’s licenses, the process for doing so requires both the state legislature and
executive to act. While 38 states have completed this process over the years, twelve 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 non-driving offenses.1
Enacted more than 25 years ago during the height of the war on drugs, this mandate imposed on
states does not improve highway safety or help people address substance use. Rather, it has the
opposite effect. 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.2
Analysis by Prison Policy Initiative found that 99% of license suspensions in Virginia and 90%
of license suspensions in New York had nothing to do with a vehicle.3 Limited state and local
law enforcement resources are spent enforcing these suspensions rather than addressing threats to
public safety. Moreover, the loss of a drivers’ license can severely impact the ability of a person
to find employment as well as maintain enrollment in treatment services vital to addiction
recovery.
States already have laws on the books to deal with driving-related drug offenses. This
mandate does not address gaps in state laws or public safety concerns since all 50 states have
laws on the books that suspend drivers’ licenses for drug impaired driving. Repeal of this federal
mandate would have no impact on states ability to suspend licenses for drug offenses or enforce
impaired driving statutes.
Enforcing social non-compliance license suspensions wastes police time and government
resources. Law enforcement time and resources spent arresting and processing individuals for
driving on a license suspended for a non-driving related drug offense, is time and resources not
spent addressing dangerous drivers. Motor vehicle administrators argue that “our limited
resources should be focused on dangerous drivers,”4 as “less traffic enforcement of highway
safety violations occur[s] as suspensions for social non-compliance increase.”5 Enforcement also
costs states significant tax dollars and staff time. For instance, suspending driver’s licenses for
offenses unrelated to driving consumed nearly 8,600 hours per year of staff time in Colorado the equivalent of four full-time employees.6 Florida estimated that $72,000 per year is spent on
paper, envelopes, and postage used in correspondence with people whose licenses were
suspended for non-driving related reasons.7
License suspensions undermine re-entry and recovery efforts. Finding employment and
housing is key for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system, often as conditions of
probation and parole, and in most circumstances having a valid driver’s license is essential to
maintaining both employment and housing. A U.S. Census Bureau survey found that 86% of

Americans use a vehicle to get to work and employers routinely require proof of a valid driver’s
license to even be considered for certain jobs.8 New Jersey, one of the 12 states that still
suspends licenses, surveyed individuals with a suspended license and found that 45% lost their
job because of the license suspension and were not able to find a new one. For surveyed
individuals who did find work, 88% reported a decrease in income.9 Mobility is also crucial for
people who are enrolled in drug treatment to maintain addiction recovery and access support
networks.
Low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately impacted. Individuals
who subsist on low wages often rely on public transportation to maintain employment and fulfill
other obligations. Yet, almost half of the 25 least transit accessible metropolitan areas in the U.S.
are located in the 12 states that are still suspending licenses.10 Moreover, most rural and
suburban communities lack public transportation. In New Jersey, 50% of all suspended licenses
belonged to low-income individuals.11 Additionally, blacks and Latinos use illicit drugs at
similar rates to whites but 76% of people convicted of federal drug crimes are Black-American
or Latino. Moreover, black adults are two and half times more likely to be arrested for drug
possession as white adults, putting communities of color at higher risk of being impacted by
driver license suspension laws.12
Military veterans are incarcerated at significant rates for drug offenses. Veterans are
incarcerated at high rates for drug offenses that can disqualify them for a driver’s license postconviction. Research has shown that roughly 16 percent of incarcerated veterans are behind bars
for drug law violations,13 which is roughly equivalent to the percentage of the US population
who are either active duty or military veterans.14 Furthermore, 46 percent of veterans in federal
prison are incarcerated for drug law violations and 15 percent of veterans in state prison were
incarcerated for drug law violations.
23 U.S.C. 159 undermines states’ rights, pulls law enforcement away from addressing real public
safety harms, undermines the mobility of people returning to society and disproportionately
impacts underserved communities. We urge you to support the repeal of 23 U.S.C. 159.
Sincerely,
Drug Policy Alliance
Human Rights Defense Center
National Employment Law Project
National Legal Aid & Defender Association
Marijuana Policy Project
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Council of La Raza
Prison Policy Initiative

Prison Policy Initiative, “Reinstating Common Sense: How driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated
to driving are falling out of favor,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/driving/national.html
2
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Fact Sheet, p. 1,
http://www.aamva.org/uploadedFiles/MainSite/Content/NewsPublications/Press_Room/Suspended%20and%20Rev
oked%20Fact%20Sheet%20-%20Updated%20April%202016.pdf
3
Prison Policy Initiative, “Reinstating Common Sense: How driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses
unrelated to driving are falling out of favor,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/driving/national.html
4
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Best Practices
Guide, p 2.
5
Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, Tennessee, Kansas, South Dakota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania were analyzed for the
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Best Practices Guide,
p 9. Also see: Robert Eger III, ‘Enhanced Analyses of Suspended/Revoked Driver’s Related to Crashes’ (2011).
6
The Colorado Motor Vehicle Division estimates the hours used could amount to 4.22 full time employees.
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Best Practices Guide,
p 18.
7
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Suspended/Revoked Working Group, Best Practices
Guide, p 14.
8
“Who Drives to Work? Commuting by Automobile in the United States: 2013,” August 2015, U.S. Census Bureau,
https://www.census.gov/hhes/commuting/files/2014/acs-32.pdf
9
“Final Report,” Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force, February 2006, p. 38
http://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/About/AFTF_final_02.pdf
10
Adie Tomer, Elizabeth Kneebone, Robert Puentes, and Alan Berube, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in
Metropolitan America,” Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2016/06/0512_jobs_transit.pdf; Methodology section of report “Reinstating Common Sense: How
driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving are falling out of favor,” Prison Policy Initiative,
https://www.prisonpolicy.org/driving/national.html#methodology
11
“Final Report,” Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force, February 2006, p. 31-32
http://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/About/AFTF_final_02.pdf
12
“Drug Offenders in Federal Prison: Estimates of Characteristics Based on Linked Data” Bureau of Justice
Statistics, October 2015, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dofp12_sum.pdf, “Report: Every 25 Seconds: The
Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” Human Rights Watch, October 12, 2016,
https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/12/every-25-seconds/human-toll-criminalizing-drug-use-united-states
13
Greg A. Greenberg & Robert A. Rosenheck, “Mental Health and Other Risk Factors for Jail Incarceration Among
Male Veterans,” Psychiatr Q (2009) 80:48.
14
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of the Actuary, The Veteran Population Projection Model 2014
(VetPop2014), https://www.va.gov/vetdata/Veteran_Population.asp ; FiveThirtyEight, What Percentage Of
Americans Have Served In The Military?, Mona Chalabi, March 19, 2015, https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/whatpercentage-of-americans-have-served-in-the-military/
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