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.