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Pa. to end mandatory license suspensions for some drug crimes

Written by Dylan Segelbaum/The York Daily Record | Oct 19, 2018 3:46 PM
Mike Autry.JPG

Mike Autry, 59, of York, holds out a piece of a cigar to show how big he remembers the marijuana blunt was that was behind his ear when he was arrested in an alley off West Market Street. He lost his driver's license for one year. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)

Pennsylvania will soon eliminate mandatory driver's license suspensions for drug crimes that are unrelated to driving, ending a decades-long practice that civil rights and liberties organizations have argued was overly punitive, counterproductive and irrational -- as well as one that disproportionately affected poor and minority communities.

The Legislature on Wednesday gave final approval to the bill, which also gets rid of automatic suspensions for several other charges, including underage drinking. In an email, J.J. Abbott, Gov. Tom Wolf's press secretary, said the governor plans to sign the legislation in the next 10 days.

"This is truly a bipartisan effort," said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny and Washington counties, the prime sponsor of the bill. "It shows that with all the divisiveness in Harrisburg and Washington, there are times we can really come together to help people and solve problems."

Related: Why thousands in Pa. have had their licenses suspended without a DUI or driving violation

In the 1990s, Congress passed a series of laws that threatened to take away money from states if they did not enact mandatory driver's license suspensions for certain drug offenses. But since then, most states have gotten rid of them.

In Pennsylvania, a first offense carried a mandatory six-month driver's license suspension. A second offense came with a one-year suspension, and a third or subsequent offense resulted in a two-year suspension.

Between 2011 and 2016, Pennsylvania suspended the driver's licenses of about 149,000 people who were convicted of drug crimes "unrelated to traffic safety," according to a lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Washington, D.C.

A York Daily Record/Sunday News analysis recently revealed that as many as 623 people had their driver's license suspended in York County in a case in which they were neither convicted of DUI nor found to have committed a motor vehicle violation in 2017.

For example, a man who was walking down West Market Street in York lost his driver's license for one year. That's because he was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant and had a small piece of a marijuana blunt tucked behind his ear.

"I had no idea they were going to take my license for a whole year," said Mike Autry, 59, a handyman from York, in a recent interview. "Because I wasn't driving, I wasn't under the influence, I wasn't near no vehicle."

The bill received unanimous support in the state Senate and almost unanimous backing in the state House.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania supported the bill and applauded the Legislature for eliminating a relic of what it called the failed War on Drugs.

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said these mandatory driver's license suspensions were ineffective and only made it more difficult for people to get back on their feet after a conviction.

People who didn't have access to public transportation and chose to drive on a suspended license, she said, risked getting caught and re-entering the criminal justice system.

"It will make very meaningful change for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians annually," Randol said.

Saccone said he's really proud of the legislation and hopes that the governor will hold a signing ceremony.

The bill does not retroactively apply to people who are currently serving license suspensions. 

Saccone said he recalls having the bill apply retroactive didn't have enough support. He's leaving the Legislature and hopes that someone will take up the cause next session.

"Sometimes, you have to take these things one step at a time," Saccone said. "This is a giant step for Pennsylvanians. I hope we'll keep stepping forward."

The law will take effect in 180 days, after the bill is signed.

What happens to people who are currently serving suspensions in Pa.?

In an email, Alexis Campbell, community relations coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said nothing in the measure indicates that it will affect suspensions that have already been imposed.

Campbell said the agency will be required to suspend driver's licenses for certain drug offenses until the new law goes into effect.

Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., had filed a lawsuit that sought to end the practice of suspending driver's licenses for convictions unrelated to traffic safety in Pennsylvania.

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said a judge recently dismissed the lawsuit, largely on jurisdictional grounds. The organization, he said, is not going to appeal.

But Telfeyan said it's "holding open" the possibility of additional litigation, depending on what PennDOT does with people who are currently serving these suspensions.

"Effectively, the Legislature has recognized the irrationality of these suspensions," Telfeyan said. "Now, it's up to PennDOT to do the same."

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record. 

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