Pennsylvania state officials are receiving legal and rhetorical pressure from a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group to pass a law ending driver’s license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses.
On Jan. 10, Equal Justice Under Law (EJUL) civil rights activists filed a lawsuit in a Philadelphia-based U.S. District Court against state Governor Tom Wolf (D) and Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT), calling out the unconstitutionality of license suspensions related to drug crimes. The complaint filed by EJUL lawyers also asks the court to reinstate any PA driver’s licenses currently suspended due to non-driving drug charges.
“Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that negatively affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life,” reads an Equal Justice Under Law press release. “Without the ability to drive, people can’t find and maintain employment, pursue education, keep medical appointments, or care for loved ones.”
It is estimated that more than 149,000 drivers had their licenses suspended in Pennsylvania from 2011 to 2016. EJUL lawyers related the stories of two such drivers in their lawsuit, highlighting the financial hardships license suspension brings to Pennsylvania residents.
The two Philadelphia natives had their licenses suspended for possession of marijuana, a non-driving crime. Since these suspensions, Russell Harold, a 52-year-old father of six, has been forced to pass up numerous job opportunities because they’d require him to drive distances or hours outside the scope of public transport. Additionally, he’s missed several medical appointments related to the treatment of a diagnosed disability because he cannot transport himself to the doctor, the lawsuit reads.
The other driver, 25-year-old Sean Williams, has never been ticketed for a driving-related offense. Like Harold, Williams has turned down job opportunities because public transport would not accommodate the hours or distance he’d need to travel. The lawsuit also relates the difficulties Williams will face having to transport his prematurely-born son to and from the hospital for regular check-ups via public transportation.
If the legislation is not adjusted, the two Philadelphian fathers will not have their licenses until 2019, something EJUL activists want to change.
The group’s officials support Pennsylvania House Bill (HB) 163, which prevents license suspension for non-driving crimes related to the possession, sale, or delivery of controlled substances. The bill was proposed in October and is currently under review in the legislature.
“The governor's office and PennDOT have both said they support legislation to end the state's unfair and discriminatory driver's license suspension scheme—and we at Equal Justice Under Law agree,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of EJUL. “HB 163 would eliminate the motor vehicle code provision that calls for license suspensions for controlled substance convictions and would cure the constitutional issues raised by our lawsuit.”
Representative Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny) authored and introduced HB 163. With the bill’s passage, Pennsylvania would become the 39th state to end driver’s license suspension for non-driving crimes.
“[We] have seen an alarming number of individuals who are at a disadvantage after paying their debt to society by not being able to drive and re-enter the workforce,” said Saccone. “[It] is my hope this legislation will be the final step in allowing individuals . . . to fully make amends for their decisions, and become a productive member of the public.”
The bill was reviewed at the House Transportation and Judiciary Committee hearing in October, but has not yet gone to vote. EJUL’s lawsuit is currently pending.