Victory Against the “War on Drugs”: Pennsylvania Repeals Punitive License Suspensions in Wake of EJUL Suit
October 31, 2018
On october 24, 2018, pennsylvania governor tom wolf signed into law hb 163, a law repealing automatic license suspensions for any one with a drug conviction — even when their offense was unrelated to driving. The law removes an onerous collateral consequence of drug convictions for thousands of impacted drivers.
While most states had long abandoned automatic license suspension as an extra punishment for non-driving-related drug offenses, Pennsylvania continued to enforce this relic of the failed “war on drugs” for decades. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, Pennsylvania suspended the licenses of over 149,000 individuals with drug-related convictions even after they had served their sentences. The suspensions lasted months, years, and sometimes decades.
HB 163 had stalled in the Pennsylvania legislature for over a year — nine months after EJUL’s lawsuit was filed, the bill became law.
Driver’s licenses are essential for individuals already dealing with the consequences of a drug conviction. In addition to having a criminal record, individuals with suspended licenses have difficulty finding and maintaining work, going to school, accessing medical care, and seeing their family — all critical aspects of successful social reentry .
In January 2018, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class action lawsuit challenging the counterproductive practice of suspending someone’s license after they had already been punished for their offense. Equal Justice Under Law represented individuals harmed by licenses suspensions like Sean, a 25-year-old target of relentless stop-and-frisks who had been caught with small amounts of marijuana and could not drive to see his prematurely-born son in the hospital; Dan, a 45-year-old resident of rural Pennsylvania who has to walk over 10 miles a day to attend addiction-recovery meetings and school classes to become a drug and alcohol counselor; and Russell, a father of six who could not see his children or go to the doctor to treat his disability because of his license suspension.
HB 163 had stalled in the Pennsylvania House for over a year at the time the lawsuit was filed. Nine months after Equal Justice Under Law sued, the bill passed both the House and the Senate to become law.
Between 2011 and 2016 alone, Pennsylvania suspended the licenses of over 149,000 individuals with drug-related convictions even after they had served their sentences. The suspensions last months, years, and sometimes decades.
unfortunately, HB 163 does not apply retroactively — meaning thousands of individuals will continue to live with suspended licenses even after paying their debt to society.
HB 163 is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves thousands of Pennsylvanians with suspended licenses due to their past drug-related convictions, despite the state legislature recognizing how harmful this counterproductive punishment is. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Governor Tom Wolf have the power to reinstate licenses that were previously suspended for non-driving-related drug offenses.
Equal Justice under law is still fighting to ensure the department of transportation and governor wolf do the right thing.
HB 163 does not apply to thousands of drivers who already have a suspended license for a past conviction.
Without retroactive application of HB 163, people who have already served their sentences for their drug-related offenses will continue to struggle without the vital ability to drive. Dan will still have to walk ten miles a day for the next six years, even though he has served his sentence and is trying to maintain sobriety. Russell will continue to have difficulty accessing employment and doctor’s appointments to treat his disability for years to come.
Equal Justice Under Law is fighting to ensure PennDOT and Governor Wolf do the right thing for thousands of drivers still affected by this unfair relic of the War on Drugs.
Stay tuned for more updates on our reform work on behalf of people with drug convictions in Pennsylvania, and check out our other great driver’s license suspension work going on across the country.