At the height of drug war’s influence on policy making, the federal government required states to implement a law to automatically suspend the driver license of those convicted of a drug charge. If a state failed to comply, its federal highway funding would be withheld. Utah, alongside most states, quickly implemented this law in 1991.
Shortly after the federal law was passed, Congress added an “opt-out” option so states that didn’t pass the law would no longer lose funding. As time went by, most states took advantage of opting out; as of this January, only 12 states still had this driver license suspension law on the books.
Most states have repealed these laws because suspending a driver’s license for a non-driving crime is an unfair punishment that’s not related to the offense. Functioning members of society need reliable transportation to thrive.
Utah’s law has disproportionately hurt financially struggling individuals—especially those with a criminal record who already have a significant barrier they have to overcome when applying for jobs and housing in an effort to turn their life around. Taking their driver license away adds another heavy burden that unnecessarily limits their options even further.
Utah already took the necessary steps to opt out of the law in 2010, with a resolution sponsored by Rep. Becky Lockhart. When 2015 rolled around, Sen. Curt Bramble took the resolution a step further with a bill to remove the mandatory suspension of licenses, replacing it with a discretionary option for judges to decide.
Despite these changes, judges have continued to rely on license suspension as part of the punishment for drug offenders. On average, a staggering 8,453 Utahns have had their driver license suspended each year for non-driving drug offenses.
We proposed legislation that became House Bill 144, sponsored by Representative Cory Maloy, which addressed this problem by removing this punishment option. The new law—once signed by the governor—will ensure that no Utahn will have their driver licenses suspended for committing a drug offense that has nothing to do with operating a vehicle.
HB 144 passed through the legislature with little resistance. There was strong support for this bill in both chambers, and it received unanimous support in the Senate.
From its introduction to final passage, there were no changes recommended or adopted to the legislation, which is rare for a bill. It makes sense in this case, however, as the simple yet impactful change this bill made is clearly positive for society.
Thousands of Utahns will be positively impacted from this legislation each year. Non-violent drug offenders will have one less barrier restricting them from re-acclimating to normal life after their conviction. They will have increased opportunities for employment which will lead to more income and independence. Meanwhile, driver licenses will continue to be suspended and revoked for those who present an actual danger to society by driving under the influence.
We applaud legislators for so strongly supporting this important bill and for removing a punitive obstacle that has caused demonstrable harm to thousands of Utahns in recent years.