Class Assails Pennsylvania for Linking Drug Crimes, Driving

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Pennsylvania suspends the driver’s licenses of people whether they got caught with a few ounces of weed or killed someone with their car. Two men convicted only of minor drug crimes claim in a federal class action that the scheme is unconstitutional.

Represented by Goldstein Mehta and the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, Russell Harold and Sean Williams filed their federal complaint on Jan. 10 in Philadelphia.

“For people already facing the harsh realities of living with a criminal conviction, the ability to find and maintain gainful employment, pursue education, keep medical appointments, and care for dependent family members is essential to a stable post-conviction life,” the complaint states. “By imposing additional and debilitating measures against people with drug convictions, defendants make successful post-conviction rehabilitation a near impossibility.”

Apart from offenses related to traffic safety, the complaint continues, “drug convictions are the only crimes for which the [Pennsylvania] Department of Transportation suspends the driver’s licenses of adults over 21.” (Emphasis in original.)

Noting that drug convictions have no bearing on traffic safety, Harold and Williams say “Pennsylvania’s suspension policy can only be explained as state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of a particular animus toward people with drug conviction.”

Convicted of marijuana-related crimes last year, the lead plaintiffs joined the 149,000 Pennsylvania drivers whose licenses were suspended between 2011 and 2016 for drug-related offenses.

Pennsylvania “thus punish[es] people found in possession of a small amount of marijuana (unrelated to driving) as harshly as those who have been convicted of aggravated assault while driving under the influence, vehicular manslaughter, or any other dangerous activity that results in the loss of one’s ability to drive,” the complaint states (parentheses in original).

Of the states that had similar drug-related license-suspension policies, the complaint notes that 38 have abolished these laws “to ensure successful rehabilitation of former drug offenders.”

“Automatic and extended periods of license suspension for individuals who pose no demonstrated risk to traffic safety is irrational, counterproductive, and discriminatory,” the complaint continues. “License suspension burdens virtually every aspect of a person’s life while undercutting the state’s interests in rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism.”

Lead plaintiff Russell is described as a 52-year-old disabled grandfather who operates a home cleaning business.

Facing the loss of his license until 2019, Harold says he has been unable to drive to clients’ houses and his weekly income has dropped from $700 to $200.

Co-plaintiff Williams is just 25 and his first child was born prematurely in April 2017.

Though he has a “perfect driving record,” the complaint says he was arrested three times last year for carrying small amounts of personal-use marijuana.

Because those convictions resulted in the suspension of his license, Williams has had to take public transportation to visit his son every day at the hospital and the burdens will only intensify when the baby is released.

“As a premature infant he will require frequent medical appointments, and because of his vulnerability, public transportation poses a hazard to his health,” the complaint states.

“Because Mr. Williams cannot drive, he will be unable to take his son to necessary doctor’s appointments or to visit family members,” the complaint continues.

“If an emergency occurs with Mr. Williams’ son, he will be unable to drive him to seek emergency medical help.”

The complaint also notes that the loss of his license has left Williams unable to help his grandmother with her daily activities, including transportation to doctor’s appointments.

Phil Telfeyan of Equal Justice for All said in an email he hopes “this legal challenge pushes the Department of Transportation in the right direction, to finally end this unfair and counterproductive practice.”

“Pennsylvania’s drug suspension laws are trapping too many people in a cycle of poverty; without a driver’s license, it’s nearly impossible to find and maintain employment,” Telfeyan said. “This law — which is decades old — is causing damage to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, and the Department of Transportation has already recognized the law’s failure in testimony before the state’s legislature.”

Becky Iannotta, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the group “does not take a position on laws and offenses that are unrelated to impaired driving or underage drinking.”

Representatives for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf have not returned a request for comment.

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