In every state, drivers who have been convicted of specified driving violations and other offenses may have their driving privileges suspended or revoked, in addition to other consequences. When the underlying offense is driving-related, the suspension is intended as a way to provide for safety on the public roads. When the triggering offense is not driving-related, the rationale is more indirect: suspending a driver’s license for a parent who owes child support is a powerful way to encourage payment. Click here to find the laws in your state.
Police may not stop you just because they suspect you're driving without a valid license. For more information, see Driving Without a License: Presenting Proof of a Valid License.
Reasons for License Suspension or Revocation
Suspensions or revocations are common for highway-related offenses, such as driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and for other driving violations involving reckless behavior, such as speeding, racing, and hit-and-run. Suspensions are particularly likely for drivers who are persistent violators, who have amassed a minimum number of “points” against their licenses, and who have committed a felony using a vehicle. Some states allow suspension for any driving activity that would justify a refusal to issue the license in the first place.
Motorists who have caused an accident and who have no insurance or other financial ability to cover damage and injuries may also face license suspensions. Suspension is also commonly a consequence of failing to pay child support. Some states allow for suspension on the grounds of a driver’s disability, including visual impairment, epilepsy, age, and diabetes.
Mechanics of Suspension or Revocation
Depending on the state, either courts or state agencies (such as departments of motor vehicles) have the power to suspend or revoke licenses. Some state agencies have wide latitude in deciding whether to suspend, with the authority to do so when, in their opinion, enabling the driver to continue to drive will compromise public safety.
Suspension and Bankruptcy
Some drivers have challenged the continuing validity of their license suspensions after they have filed for bankruptcy. In a typical scenario, a driver who is at fault in an auto accident fails to pay a money judgment to the victim, and has her license suspended as a result. The driver files for bankruptcy, which wipes out the debt, then seeks reinstatement of the license on the grounds that the underlying judgment, which triggered the suspension, is now gone. Courts are split on the outcome—some will reinstate the license, others will not.
Occupational and Ignition Interlock Restricted Licenses
Under certain circumstances, drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked can apply for restricted licenses, which allow them to drive during the period of suspension or revocation.
Occupational restricted licenses typically allow drivers to drive to work, school, community service, or certain other activities, with restrictions including the times of day, days of week, and areas to which they may drive.
Drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked for certain alcohol or drug-related offenses can apply for ignition interlock restricted licenses. These licenses permit them to drive if they use an ignition interlock device, which tests breath for alcohol consumption, installed in their car.
Conditions for Reinstatement
When a license is suspended, it will remain so for a specified period of time. Similarly, when a license is revoked, the driver will be barred from applying for a new license for a certain period of time. In addition to waiting through the time period, drivers typically must fulfill certain conditions before the license is reinstated or before they are eligible to apply for a new license. Conditions for reinstatement are often in addition to any jail time or fines. Typical conditions include:
- participation in drug or alcohol evaluation and treatment
- proof of financial responsibility (such as liability insurance or proof of financial ability)
- payment of child support in arrears, and
- payment of a reinstatement fee.
In some states, drivers with suspended licenses who fulfill the reinstatement conditions and have waited the specified amount of time before commencing driving may do so without an official okay from either the court or a regulating agency. In other states, drivers must wait for the court or agency to acknowledge the driver’s successful completion, at which time the court will take steps to affirmatively reinstate the license. Drivers who have had a license revoked must reapply for a new license.
Challenging Conditions for Reinstatement
Courts generally agree that although driving is a privilege and not a right, it is also a necessary part of many peoples’ lives, enabling them to get to work and school. Because driving is so crucial, the state should not arbitrarily deny a person’s right to the restoration of his license. Many suspension laws’ conditions for reinstatement have been challenged as exceeding the police power of the state, violating due process, and being unconstitutionally vague. In most instances, the statutes have been upheld against these challenges.
Motorists who believe that a condition for reinstatement is unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful must challenge the condition at the time the license is suspended. If they wait until they are caught while driving on the suspended license and seek to raise the illegality of the condition for reinstatement at the ensuing hearing or trial, courts will usually deny them this opportunity.
Penalties for Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License
Drivers sometimes begin driving while their license is still suspended or revoked (and without a valid restricted license). Doing so results in a charge of driving with a suspended or revoked license. Penalties can include fines and jail time, with increased sentences for repeat offenders.
Sometimes drivers begin driving after the suspension period has expired, but before they have completed any additional conditions, like the ones described above. When that happens, courts react in one of two ways:
- the license continues to be suspended until the conditions are met, which means that the driver will be guilty of driving on a suspended license, or
- the driver will be guilty of driving without a valid license.
The distinction noted above can be significant, because the penalties for driving on a suspended license versus driving without a valid license are likely to be different.
State Specific Laws on Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License
Choose your state from the list below to find information about your states laws regarding driving on a suspended license.