By Alexandria Staubach
Speakers recently debated the merits of two bills that would turn operating a vehicle on a suspended license into a crime and cause for vehicle seizure.
On Oct. 3, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety heard testimony on SB 404 and SB 410. SB 404 increases the penalties for operating while suspended. Currently, most operating-while-suspended violations are forfeiture violations handled in municipal courts. SB 404 would turn even first offenses into misdemeanors at the very least. SB 410 would permit the state to impound vehicles as a penalty for operating while suspended.
Republican proponents argued that increased penalties would combat and curb excessive repeat suspended driver offenses, while Democrats and community stakeholders contended that the bills criminalize poverty.
Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), committee chair and a sponsor of both bills, testified in their favor. He fixated on the notion that repeat suspended drivers lack an effective deterrent. Driving in the state of Wisconsin is a “privilege, not a right,” he said, stressing that people must be properly licensed and registered to enjoy that privilege. Wanggaard said that the types of people engaging in revoked or suspended driving are frequently the same individuals who are reckless drivers. In his experience, he said, people subject to the ramifications of SB 404 are “not responsible individuals,” arguing that the prospect of jail would “change the game” in people’s cost benefit analysis of whether to drive while suspended.
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) questioned whether the bills met their stated purpose. “If somebody is driving dangerously, we have penalties, and there should be penalties,” said Roys. She recognized that many people cited for repeated suspended driving are initially suspended for failure to pay fines or fees. “The legislature is making it very difficult to be responsible so legislators can get good headlines about being tough on crime when what we are criminalizing here is poverty and not dangerous conduct,” she said.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) also questioned whether the proposed legislation targeted poor driving and criminal conduct or instead merely “contributes to a vicious poverty cycle.” She highlighted that there are other ways to achieve what the bill sponsors want.
SB 404 would result in some traffic offenses being removed from municipal courts and sent to circuit courts. Adam Plotkin, the State Public Defender's legislative liaison, noted that the bill would further crowd an already overburdened criminal justice system.
According to Plotkin, SB 404 is “likely to create a significant number of new cases that will require additional resources for the SPD, prosecutors, courts, jails, and others.” Plotkin cited Department of Transportation and court data that demonstrated that as many as 6,900 new cases would become criminal offenses under the law if enacted and that 67% of those cases would qualify for public defender representation. Plotkin said those cases equate to the workload of nine additional public defenders per year based on current case load standards, without an allocation for the associated cost.
Community opponents of the bills stated that lack of a driver’s license is a significant barrier to employability. Sheila Sullivan, an attorney with Legal Action Wisconsin, cited data demonstrating that 42% of individuals who had their license suspended lost their job as an immediate result, and 45% of those individuals remained unemployed during the term of their suspension (often a year or more).
James Gramling, a former Milwaukee Municipal Court judge and member of the 1995 Governor’s Task Force on Suspended and Revoked Drivers, also testified. (Note: Gramling is a WJI board member.) “In my view you would be creating debtors' prisons,” he said.
Gramling questioned why speeding was not being criminalized if reckless conduct is truly the issue. Calling the bills “unfair and unproductive,” Grambling said that perhaps driving without a license demonstrates irresponsibility on the part of citizens, but that irresponsibility does not equate to criminality.
WJI submitted written testimony against both bills, pointing out that "(t)he number-one cause of license suspensions or revocations each year, by a significant margin, is failure to pay a prior court forfeiture." Municipal judges are allowed by statute to suspend a person's driver’s license as a sanction for failure to pay municipal forfeitures.
"In 2022, failure to pay prior forfeitures was the basis for 47.22% of suspensions or revocations according to Department of Transportation data. . . . The next highest reason for suspension or revocation—a poor driving record—caused only 17.22% in comparison," WJI wrote.
“The vast majority of those with outstanding forfeiture debt lack the means to pay," WJI wrote. "Losing a driver’s license already inhibits one’s ability to get to and from work or school or maintain employment that requires driving. Penalizing those who drive on a revoked or suspended license with criminal penalties or impoundment of their vehicles is an excessive punishment not faced by those who are able to afford their forfeiture amounts. And it does little to nothing to keep others safe.”
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