Pubdate: February 5, 1998     
Source: The Washington Times 
Author: Thomas D. Elias,  Special To The Washington Times 

Licenses lifted for non-driving offenses


Anyone worried about government agencies becoming Big Brothers controlling
social behavior need look no farther than the nearest office of their
state's Department of Motor Vehicles.      
Federal law now mandates that DMVs lift driver's licenses of illegal aliens
caught trying to re-enter the country and deadbeat parents who refuse to
make child-support payments.      

But some state legislatures -- led by California's -- are making much wider
use of DMVs and their constantly updated address and arrest records.      

California lawmakers are having the state motor vhicle department revoke
driver's licenses as punishment for more and more infractions having little
or nothing to do with driving a car or truck.      
New California laws this year make loss of driving privileges the penalty
for everything from consorting with prostitutes to operating a boat while
drunk to possession of marijuana.      

These activities joined a list that already included such crimes as using a
fake ID to buy alcohol, growing peyote, causing a disturbance on a bus,
playing sound equipment loudly on buses or trains, using a slug in a
vending machine, painting roadside graffiti, violating loitering or curfew
laws, and fishing without a license.      

As the year began, California's DMV received new authority to suspend
licenses from people convicted of a sex act with a prostitute in a car if
that act occurs within 1,000 feet of a private home. The DMV also got the
new power to take away driving privileges for one year for anyone under 21
found operating a motorboat with a blood-alcohol count of 0.01 percent and
anyone 21 or over caught with a count of 0.08 percent while at the helm of
a boat.      

And it got a two-year extension of the state's existing "Smoke a Joint,
Lose Your License" law under which anyone convicted of using illegal drugs
faces a six-month driver's license suspension, even if the offense took
place in their own home and had no relation to operating any sort of

The profusion of license-lifting laws is a reflection of the fact that
driving is a more important privilege in California than in many other
places because of the state's long commutes and general lack of mass

But other states such as Colorado, Arizona and Texas, which also have poor
public transit, have lately begun adding nondriving offenses to the list of
things that can get your license suspended.      
"We're kind of a punishment agency of last resort for legislators at both
the state and federal level," said California DMV spokesman Bill Madison.
"These guys say they don't like some sort of behavior and then they try to
figure out an appropriate punishment, and the best they can come up with is
to suspend a driver's license."      

Making state motor vehicle agencies into enforcers of social mores draws
the fervent opposition of both civil libertarians and advocates of
liberalized drug laws.      

"Take deadbeat dads for example," said Francisco Lobaco, who monitors
traffic laws for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We know the computer
that monitors them has inaccurate information on thousands of people in its
data banks. But those computer records are now linked to the DMV's. So you
can have a situation where someone who has been tracked inaccurately loses
the ability to get a driver's license."       

Adds Dale Gierenger, California coordinator for the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "Under the Smoke a Joint, Lose Your
License law, it's a worse crime to have marijuana in your home than to
engage in reckless driving and speeding. They don't have mandatory
suspension for that."      

Mr. Gierenger cites a 1994 National Highway Transportation Safety
Administration report showing alcohol is the leading cause of drug-related
traffic accidents, while pot is a significant traffic danger only when
combined with booze.      

He, too, notes that losing a license can be a severe penalty, especially in
California, where inability to drive often means losing the ability to get
to work.      

"It's more of a penalty in California than in most other places because of
the distances and the fact that driving is usually the only way for people
to reach their jobs," agrees Linda Lewis, director of public and
legislative affairs for the American Association of Motor Vehicle
Administrators. "People just drive more in California, too."      

California DMV administrators don't like the idea of their agency becoming
one of the state's chief enforcers of public morality. "But when the
legislators act and then the court tells us to suspend a license and cites
the code section, we have no choice," said Mr. Madison.      

But some lawmakers and former legislators see direct connections between
driving and some of the actions they are trying to curb.      

"Men don't go walking three or four blocks to get a prostitute," notes
Trice Harvey, a former Republican legislator from Bakersfield, who
introduced the first bill to suspend the licenses of "johns." "That's not
how it's done. The guys drive up to the hookers. This sort of activity
doesn't happen without a car involved."