Side bar

Iii. Specific sanctions and remedies


License suspension and vehicle impoundment or forfeiture are not technically punitive or deterrent actions but derive from the remedial purpose of protecting the general public from a potentially dangerous driver. The term “remedial” is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary (5th edition) as “that which is designed to . . . introduce regulations conducive to the public good.” The distinction is important because defense attorneys filed motions to dismiss criminal charges in drinking and driving cases based on grounds of double jeopardy (Gilbert and Stephen, 1995). However, since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1997 (Hudson v. United States, 1997) concluded that administrative remedies do not constitute double jeopardy, the number of motions on these grounds has declined dramatically.

License Suspension

A single DWI arrest may result in two kinds of license actions. The first is an administrative license suspension (ALS), usually carried out by the arresting officer as a civil action on behalf of the motor vehicle administration. The second is a judicial post-conviction action ordered by the court (Tashima and Helander, 1995). Both fall under the category of remedies.

Studies of license suspension demonstrate its effectiveness in reducing recidivism and the risk of crash involvement among drinking drivers (NHTSA, 1986; Mann et al., 1991; McKnight and Voas, 1991; Ross, 1991; Sadler, Perrine, and Peck, 1991; Williams, 1992; Rodgers, 1994). Findings include the following:

  • Suspension periods between 12 and 18 months appear to be optimal for reducing DWI recidivism (Homel, 1981).
  • Suspension periods of less than 3 months seem ineffective (Paulsrude and Klingberg, 1975; Peck, Wilson, and Sutton, 1994).
  • Although more than 50 percent of offenders continue to drive under license suspension, it has been hypothesized that they drive less frequently and in a more cautious manner than previously to avoid apprehension, thereby having lowered violation and crash rates (Ross and Gonzalez, 1988; Nichols and Ross, 1990; Ross, 1991; Mayhew and Simpson, 1991).

On the other hand, driving with a suspended license has been shown to be problematic:

  • Recently, McCartt, Geary, and Nissen (2002a) found that 36 percent of suspended DWI drivers continued to drive at least once in one county while 88 percent of suspended DWI drivers continued to drive at least once in a different county.
  • Griffin III and DeLaZerda (2000) found that 20 percent of all fatal crashes between 1993 and 1997 involved at least one improperly licensed driver or a driver with a suspended or revoked license.

Some evidence shows that license suspension can lead to reform beyond the period of suspension, especially when combined with some form of education or treatment (Ross, 1991). Others suggest that for multiple repeat offenders, suspension may not be effective. Rather, in this view, judges should consider imposing on this category of offender limited driving privileges, such as with an interlock along with strict supervision and intensive probation.

Administrative License Suspension

Administrative license suspension (ALS) is the administrative suspension or revocation of the driver’s license of a DWI offender at the time of arrest (Lacey, Jones, and Stewart, 1991). ALS differs from traditional judicial license actions in several ways. First, anyone arrested in States with an ALS law is immediately subject to ALS. Usually, the arresting officer confiscates the license and issues a notice of ALS. Often, the notice of ALS may serve as a temporary license for a period (e.g., 10-30 days) during which the driver may request an administrative hearing for license reinstatement. Regardless of the outcome of such a hearing, the arrestee is still subject to a separate criminal charge that may lead to additional penalties, including judicial license actions (Williams, Weinberg, and Fields, 1991).

At the end of the suspension period, some jurisdictions re-issue the license back to the driver, often charging a license reinstatement fee and requiring verification of insurance. Other jurisdictions require a complete driver’s license re-examination, including a reinstatement fee, before driving privileges are restored. Some jurisdictions suspend the license but issue a hardship license while the suspension remains in effect (NHTSA, 1993).

Administrative license revocation (ALR) or suspension (ALS) laws have been shown in a recent nationwide study to reduce fatal crashes involving drinking drivers by 13 to 19 percent (Voas et al., 2000).

Vehicle Impoundment, Forfeiture, and Other Vehicle-Based Sanctions

Vehicle impoundment sanctions have been found to be effective in reducing offender recidivism by 25 to 60 percent in Ohio and California (DeYoung, 1999, 2000; Voas and DeYoung, 2002). However, impoundment, as with other vehicle sanctions, does not guarantee effective incapacitation because the offender may borrow, rent, or steal a different vehicle (Jacobs, 1990). Further, in some cases, an impoundment program may take a long time to be fully implemented. In addition, the vehicle may be a family’s only way of getting to and from work, school, and other similar activities. In most States, a DWI offender’s vehicle may be impounded overnight, and the vehicle may be kept longer for offenders who are recidivists or who were caught driving with a suspended license. Oftentimes, even when State law requires impoundment and allows for forfeiture, the local district attorney or judge does not impose such sanctions. This is due mainly to the fact that a procedure for the apprehension and storage of vehicles is not in place and because of the time it takes running title listings and searching for lienholders. One study suggests that vehicle impoundment works best when it can be applied administratively by police without the need to obtain a criminal conviction (Voas, 1992).

Minnesota has a law that provides for the administrative impoundment and destruction of the license plates of the offender’s vehicle by the arresting officer. This approach has resulted in a larger proportion of eligible offenders receiving the sanction and reduced recidivism rates (Rodgers, 1994). This can also be used as a remedy for prosecutors to recommend and judges to use as a condition of release of the offender.

Vehicle forfeiture usually requires statutory authority or a civil legal seizure process based upon confiscating the instrument used in the crime. North Carolina has a viable program – proceeds from the forfeitures go to local schools for education, it is highly publicized, and storage and towing are provided by the State (Voas and DeYoung, 2002). However, seizure of the vehicle at the time of arrest or conviction brings up storage issues for police, and lien and title issues for prosecutors. It has been suggested that many offenders defeat this sanction by purchasing “junker” vehicles of little or no value.

Voas and Tippetts (1994) assessed the impact of vehicle license plate sticker laws on drivers convicted of DWI in Oregon and Washington. In these States, upon arresting a motorist for Driving on a Suspended License (DWS), officers could place a “zebra” sticker over the annual portion of the license plate of the offender’s vehicle at the time of the stop. Subsequently, any officer could stop these stickered vehicles and request that drivers produce valid licenses. In Oregon, drivers whose licenses were suspended, and at risk of getting zebra stickers if caught driving, showed a 33-percent reduction in moving violations and a 23-percent reduction in crashes after the zebra law was implemented. In Washington, no such effect was observed. The lack of an effect in Washington may have been due to methodological concerns, such as low awareness of the sanction of DWI offenders. The study suggests that if publicized and enforced, the zebra sticker law can have positive traffic safety effects, producing less and/or more careful driving by drivers suspended from a DWI and suspended DWI drivers convicted of DWS who receive a zebra sticker. Programs in both Oregon and Washington were discontinued when the legislation creating them expired.