Pubdate: February 5, 1998 Source: The Washington Times Author: Thomas D. Elias, Special To The Washington Times Contact: Website: http://www.washtimes.com/index.html Licenses lifted for non-driving offenses LOS ANGELES 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 vehicle. 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 transit. 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."