by Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — The legislative study committee that proposed the massive rewrite of Indiana’s felony code will soon take on another tough issue: The automatic penalty that causes thousands of Hoosiers to lose their driving privileges for committing transgressions ranging from unpaid parking tickets to drunk driving.
Some members of the committee are advocating that fewer crimes carry the automatic penalty of a suspended driver’s license, to allow judges to have more discretion over how the punishment is doled out.
Among the remedies for which they’re advocating: Allow judges to suspend a driver’s license with conditions that include the use of technology — such GPS tracking and interlock ignition devices — to monitor in real-time when a driver get behind a wheel.
Republican State Rep. Jud McMillin, a former prosecutor from Brookville who supports the change, said the legislature has imposed the automatic driver’s license penalty on scores of offenses to be “tough on crime.”
“We didn’t have the technology advances available to us to do it in a really smart way, so we did it the only way we could, in a really tough way,” McMillin said. “I have no problem with doing it the tough way but now that we’re able to use these technological advances, we can combine being tough and being smart. I think that would be beneficial to everybody.”
McMillin is a member of the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, whose members represent prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, judges and lawmakers. The committee is scheduled to take up the issue of the automatic driver’s license suspension penalty at its Sept. 26 meeting at the Indiana Statehouse.
A slew of traffic offenses, including driving under the influence, carry the automatic penalty of a suspended license. But there are a multitude of other non-traffic crimes that carry the penalty too, such as failure to pay child support. According to Indiana law, a minor charged with the class C misdemeanor of being “recklesslessly” in a tavern or other place where alcohol is served “shall” have his driver’s license suspended for a year. And a teenager expelled from school may have his license suspended.
Almost all the drug crimes — even some minor ones — carry the penalty, due to a 1993 federal law that said all states had to automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of convicted drug offenders or risk losing part of their federal highway funds. Only states where the legislature and the governor agreed to go on the record against the automatic suspensions could opt out.
At the time the 1993 law passed, its supporters said it would deter crime and make offenders more accountable.
But opponents of the automatic suspensions say such laws have just made it harder for people who make mistakes to redeem themselves. About 350,000 Hoosiers have suspended driver’s licenses. That’s caused them to lose their auto insurance, yet some are out driving on the road anyway.
Larry Landis, executive director of Indiana Public Defender Council, said the loss of a driver’s license can trigger a downward spiral: People who lose their license don’t want to lose their job, so they drive on a suspended license, without insurance, and risk getting caught and hit with another tough penalty: Someone caught twice driving on a suspended license faces a class D felony. Caught three times and it’s a class C felony.
“That’s what we’ve got to stop. We’ve got to give people a way back,” Landis said. “That’s what we all want: if you’re going to be on the road, we want you insured, but you can’t get insurance without a license.”
Landis, who also serves on the sentencing policy study committee, agreed with McMillin that there is technology that would allow a court to impose “conditional” license suspensions on people who’ve lost driving privileges for traffic offenses.
Several counties in Indiana are already piloting projects involving new technology that allows courts to monitor a person who’s been convicted of a drunk driving charge. The offender must breathe into a portable Breathalyzer machine several times a day and transmit the results and a live photo to court office or court-appointed contractor.
David Powell, the head of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council is also on the study committee but is reserving judgment. Powell said “IPAC is reviewing various legislative proposals and believes the topic needs additional discussion.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.