Why licenses are suspended without DUIs, driving violations
YORK, Pa. (AP) — Mike Autry was walking and shopping with his girlfriend on West Market Street in York on March 9, 2017, when a police officer recognized him.
Autry had a warrant out for his arrest because he’d failed to show up to a court hearing about owing money on older cases, including a DUI from 2005. Earlier, he’d smoked weed at his friend’s house. He’d tucked what was left of the blunt — which he described as being about 2 inches long — behind the back of his ear and forgot about it.
Police arrested him. Law enforcement eventually spotted what was left of the blunt and slapped him with additional charges.
Later, Autry pleaded guilty to possession of a small amount of marijuana and was ordered to serve 30 days on probation. But he was also hit with a one-year driver’s license suspension — even though he hadn’t been anywhere near a vehicle.
“It affects my whole life,” said Autry, 59, a handyman from York, who added that he now has to walk everywhere and can’t drive his grandchildren to the park. “Every time I get up and I want to go somewhere, I think about the fact that I should have a car and a driver’s license.”
Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that still impose mandatory driver’s license suspensions for certain drug offenses, regardless of whether the crime has anything to do with driving. In 2017, as many as 623 people in York County received a suspension in a case in which they were neither convicted of driving under the influence nor of committing a motor vehicle violation, a York Daily Record/Sunday News analysis of court records reveals.
Civil rights and liberties organizations describe these automatic suspensions as a relic of what they call the failed war on drugs, arguing that they disproportionately affect poor people and minority communities and prevent individuals who’ve already paid their debt to society from successfully reintegrating into it. Consequences can range from having to pay more for transportation to losing employment and housing.
‘It is an excuse for young teenagers to say no to drugs’
In the early 1990s, Congress passed a series of laws that threatened to withhold money from states if they didn’t put measures on the books imposing mandatory driver’s license suspensions for certain drug crimes.
In remarks before the Subcommittee on Water Resources, Transportation, and Infrastructure in 1989, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, said the legislation was designed to “help attack the serious drug problem that we face in this country and to make our roads and highways safer in the process.”
Lautenberg said traditional punishments such as fines and incarceration weren’t adequately deterring “drug behavior.” Few casual users, he said, would ever be locked up.
“The threat of losing driving privileges will give many prospective drug users a strong reason to think twice — particularly young people,” Lautenberg said.
“But the threat of a license suspension is more than a deterrent; it is an excuse,” he added. “It is an excuse for young teenagers to say no to drugs, an excuse to say, ‘No thanks, I’d rather preserve my driving privilege.’”
As other states move on, Pennsylvania keeps the law
Since then, a number of states have done away with these suspensions.
But in Pennsylvania, a first offense carries a mandatory six-month license suspension. A second offense comes with a one-year suspension, while a third or subsequent offense is a two-year suspension.
Between 2011 and 2016, Pennsylvania suspended the driver’s licenses of almost 149,000 people for “drug convictions unrelated to traffic safety,” according to a lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
In the lawsuit, Equal Justice Under Law describes suspending driver’s licenses for drug convictions as “irrational, counterproductive, and discriminatory.”
License suspensions, the lawsuit states, burden practically every part of someone’s life and undercuts the state’s interest in preventing people from reoffending.
It’s critical for people who have criminal convictions to maintain gainful employment, pursue education, keep doctor’s appointments and take care of family members. But imposing “additional and debilitating” measures against them “make successful post-conviction rehabilitation a near impossibility,” according to the lawsuit.
Plus, the lawsuit states, poorer and predominately black neighborhoods are more likely to be policed.
The lawsuit is pending, said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law. He said it appears to be the first federal court challenge to these kinds of suspensions.
Minor run-ins result in major losses
In York County, people who don’t have a prior criminal record and are caught with a small amount of marijuana for the first time are often able to enter into a diversionary program. They’re put on non-reporting probation, and, as long as they pay off their court costs and fees, the charges against them are dropped and expunged.
They don’t face a driver’s license suspension — as long as they successfully complete the program.
But other times, minor run-ins with law enforcement can cause people to lose their driving privileges. Take these three cases:
— A man was planning to sell a confidential informant cough drops and pass them off as ecstasy.
— A woman was sitting on a bench in Foundry Park in York and smoking weed and drinking malt liquor.
— A man took up a Pennsylvania State Police trooper’s offer of a ride to the train station — only to be searched and arrested on drug possession charges.
‘I had marijuana in my home, not even in my car’
When Gregory Shafer was going through an overwhelming time in his life, he decided to purchase what he thought was cocaine on Feb. 10, 2017. It turned out, he said, to be poison.
Shafer lost consciousness.
Later, York Area Regional police came to his home in Yoe and found him standing up and shaking in the bedroom. Law enforcement described it as if he was having a seizure.
Eventually, police said, he calmed down.
Police frantically rooted around his bedroom and found items including a small amount of marijuana and a bong, he said. They told him on the way to the hospital that he’d be losing his driver’s license.
Shafer pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in exchange for serving one year on probation.
“It was a mistake,” said Shafer, 34, a lift truck operator at a warehouse, of the decision to buy drugs. “I can’t blame anyone else for that. I chose to bring that energy into my life by going and doing that — by not balancing or keeping composure with whatever I was dealing with — and using drugs as an outlet.”
Losing the ability to drive, he said, put a burden on his entire life. He said he’d understand if someone was driving under the influence of drugs.
“I had marijuana in my home,” said Shafer, whose license is still suspended because of unpaid court costs. “Not even in my car.”
An unexpected consequence
Jon Tyson didn’t have weed in his car, either.
When the Pennsylvania State Police went to his home in Windsor Township on March 17, 2017, to look for someone who was wanted, they smelled marijuana.
Tyson, 25, a meat prepper at a restaurant, told them he had been smoking. He showed the troopers a glass jar that contained a small amount of marijuana as well as a pipe. They also saw other drug paraphernalia.
Later, Tyson pleaded guilty to possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia for one year of probation. He found out about the suspension when he applied for a public defender.
“I was kind of in disbelief,” he said, “because I didn’t know that was going to be one of the consequences.”
He said he’s had to spend more money on Uber — just getting to work costs $15. A lot of times, he said, his girlfriend helps him out. Tyson later got an additional license suspension because of a DUI that he picked up while the other case was pending.
Making the decision not to be in a vehicle
On Jan. 29, 2017, Spring Garden Township police were called to Edgecomb Avenue and South Albemarle Street for a man who was walking and dancing in the street. He’d been carrying a backpack but put the bag on the ground.
The man, Jacob Ohlinger, had warrants. Police searched the backpack and found items including a packet that contained heroin, a syringe and a spoon.
Ohlinger pleaded guilty to intentionally possessing a controlled substance and was sentenced to spend one year on probation. He said his driver’s license was suspended for six months.
When Ohlinger went to his boss at a landscaping company, he was told he’d have to be let go because he couldn’t drive. He eventually lost the place where he was living and had to rent a room in York. Later, he moved to the Landisville area of East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, and would leave the house at 3 a.m. because he had to walk several miles to catch the first bus to get to work.
Now, Ohlinger, 28, is in recovery from heroin addiction and works as an outreach coordinator for a sober living program. He called the suspension ridiculous, especially because he decided to walk that night because he knew he was intoxicated.
“I remember making that conscious decision not to get in my vehicle,” Ohlinger said. “I can remember vividly holding the key in my hand and unlocking the door and relocking the door and turning and starting to walk.”
‘We can fix it’
Today, there appears to be some movement on the issue in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Wolf supports legislation to get rid of these driver’s license suspensions. But, at the same time, his administration is defending against the pending lawsuit from Equal Justice Under Law.
J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s press secretary, said in an email that he could not comment on pending litigation.
State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny and Washington counties, who’s the prime sponsor of a bill that would eliminate suspensions for drug offenses that aren’t related to driving, said he’s been assured that there will be an effort to push through the legislation before the end of the session.
The House already overwhelmingly passed the bill with a vote of 192-3.
Right now, the measure is in the Senate Transportation Committee. Saccone said the bill would likely have to pass before Election Day. There’s also an accompanying resolution that, if adopted, would cut out the risk of losing federal money.
Saccone said he wants people to get energized and reach out to their representatives and senators.
“Every day that we wait, some of our citizens are being hurt by this unjust law. We can fix it,” Saccone said. “Let’s just do it.”
About the data:
We submitted a Right-to-Know Law request to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for copies of letters that were sent to people with a York County ZIP Code indicating that their driver’s license had been suspended for a drug conviction.
The timeframe we asked for was from Jan. 1, 2012, to Jan. 1, 2018.
But PennDOT told us that the request would have been expensive to fulfill. Plus, all the letters would be redacted, anyway.
The York County Clerk of Courts Office was able to run a report of every DL-21D — that’s the form that needs to be sent to PennDOT in drug cases — processed in 2017.
Next, we manually entered more than 1,400 cases into a spreadsheet.
We opened each docket and added in information including name, case number, date of birth and convictions. We then went through and deleted cases in which someone was convicted of DUI or a motor vehicle code violation. That’s in addition to cases in which someone was acquitted — the DL-21D still needs to be sent to PennDOT either way — or convicted of an offense that didn’t carry a suspension.
Finally, we looked through dozens of case files in the York County Judicial Center and reached out to people for interviews.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com