In every state, drivers who have been convicted of certain driving violations may face license suspension or revocation, in addition to other consequences. Some states also impose license suspension as a penalty for non-driving offenses, like failing to pay child support.
When the underlying offense is driving-related, the suspension is intended as a way to provide for safety on 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 (meant to be) a powerful way to encourage payment.
People who keep driving while their license is suspended or revoked face additional criminal charges and potentially longer suspension periods. This article will review common reasons for driver's license suspensions, penalties for driving without a valid license, and possible options for reinstatement or limited driving privileges.
Depending on the state, either courts or state agencies (such as the DMV) 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.
Suspensions or revocations are common consequences for serious driving-related offenses, such as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, hit-and-run, and racing. But, depending on the circumstances, less serious offenses like speeding can also lead to loss of driving privileges.
Additionally, most states have traffic violation point systems. For each traffic conviction, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) assesses a certain number of points to the driver's record. Drivers who accumulate too many points face license suspension.
In some states, license suspension can also result from non-driving violations such as failing to pay child support or unlawful possession of alcohol by a minor. And many states allow for suspension on the grounds of a driver's disability, including visual impairment and epilepsy.
A person who drives while their license is suspended or revoked (and without a valid restricted license) can face criminal charges. Penalties vary by state, but often a first offense for driving after suspension or revocation results in a misdemeanor, which can include fines and jail time. Repeat offenders generally face increased sentences and possibly longer suspension periods.
Sometimes drivers begin driving after the suspension period has expired, but before they have completed any additional conditions, like the ones described below (see How to Get Your License Reinstated). When that happens, courts react in one of two ways:
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.
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 out the suspension or revocation period, drivers typically must fulfill certain conditions before they are eligible for license reinstatement.
Conditions for reinstatement are often in addition to any jail time or fines. Typical conditions include:
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.
Under certain circumstances, drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked can apply for restricted licenses. Generally, a restricted license gives the motorist limited driving privileges during the period of suspension or revocation.
One of the most common limited licenses is a work or occupational license. Occupational restricted licenses typically allow drivers to drive to and from places like work, school, and community service. This type of license generally includes restrictions on the days and times when the motorist is permitted to drive. But it allows the person to stay employed (and pay off fines and fees).
A state might also allow certain hardship licenses that allow a person to drive to medical appointments, to perform household tasks (like grocery shopping or school drop off and pick up), or for other essential reasons, especially in areas where public transit options are limited or not available.
Drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked for certain alcohol or drug-related offenses can sometimes apply for ignition interlock device (IID) restricted licenses. These licenses permit the motorist to drive with an installed IID, which tests the driver's breath for evidence of alcohol consumption. Usually, the driver must pay for installation and monthly monitoring of the device.
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 conditions for reinstatement have been challenged as exceeding the police power of the state, violating due process or equal protection, 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 a 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.
Having your driving privileges suspended or revoked is serious business. You might not be able to drive to work, get your kids to childcare, or even get to court. Those who drive without a valid license can face criminal charges, longer suspension periods, and additional fines, fees, and costs. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer about your options. You might qualify for a limited license or a diversion program that can minimize the consequences of losing your license and get you back on track.