For most of the last century, suspension of the driver’s license has been the most feared and the most effective method of reducing recidivism and crash involvement of drivers convicted of driving while impaired (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). Today, nearly all DUI offenders receive driver license suspensions as a penalty. However, driving while suspended (DWS) laws are difficult to enforce because the driver’s license can only be checked when the police stop the vehicle for another traffic offense. Studies of suspended offenders suggest that 75% drive while suspended.
In the past 10 years, more and more states have passed vehicle action programs, which are vehicle sanctions against the vehicles of DWI and DWS offenders (e.g., vehicle impoundment, vehicle forfeiture, vehicle interlock penalty, etc.). This study summarizes six different evaluations of vehicle action programs operating in California, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington. Oregon previously had a Zebra Tag law, which allowed law enforcement officers to take the driver’s vehicle registration when apprehending a driver without a valid license. The driver was given a temporary registration certificate, and a striped (‘Zebra’) sticker was placed over the annual sticker on the vehicle license plate. The city of Portland enacted a civil forfeiture program that focused on the unlawful use of the vehicle irrespective of the culpability of the owner.
Primary Research Question
Are the studied vehicle action programs effective? After the vehicle action law is implemented, are there reductions in DWS or DUI offenses?
Although a 1992 review of vehicle sanctions for DWI and DWS offenders showed 32 states with such laws, the laws were not actively enforced or were applied to such a small number of offenders that they did not appear to have a strong impact on impaired driving by DWI offenders. This study reviews a half dozen evaluations of vehicle action programs in California, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington The studies are all quasi-experimental in nature, reflecting the difficulty of randomly assigning offenders to different punitive sanctions.
A significant limitation in most jurisdictions was that the motor vehicle departments had to depend upon local enforcement agencies to apprehend drivers operating vehicles with suspended registrations. Ohio was an exception: its motor vehicle department had its own enforcement department. Another limitation in the studies of the general deterrent value of vehicle action laws is that little or no information was presented on the extent to which the laws were publicized.
Overall, the large sample sizes (allowing sufficient statistical power) and the replication among the stronger studies add credibility to the collective findings that vehicle impoundment/immobilization are associated with declines in crashes and moving violation convictions that are both statistically and practically significant. Evidence for the other three vehicle action sanctions (vehicle license plate impoundment, vehicle license plate marking, and vehicle forfeiture) is less compelling because the number of studies of these actions are more limited. Of these, the most intriguing is the Minnesota study of plate confiscation, which demonstrated a reduction in recidivism among third DUI offenders. This sanction has particular promise because the vehicle plates belong to the state; thus, issues surrounding the seizure of private property are reduced. The license plate sticker program showed some promise in Oregon but had no measurable effect in Washington. The results of the study on Portland’s civil forfeiture program showed that offenders whose vehicles were seized had a significantly longer time to rearrest than offenders whose vehicles were not seized did.
The study highlights some of the issues that surround the use of vehicle sanctions: Generally, impoundment laws provide that vehicles must be returned to nonoffender owners if they can prove they were unaware of the offender’s status. In such cases, the owner is usually required to execute a ‘stipulated vehicle release agreement’, which provides that the vehicle must be forfeited to the state if the owner allows the offender to operate the vehicle while still suspended. Such agreements appear to be effective in making the vehicle inaccessible to offenders. The most successful vehicle impoundment and forfeiture laws provide for a service fee (generally at least $100) for the return of a seized vehicle. Because many DUI and DWS offenders are driving ‘junkers’ (vehicles of little value), successful forfeiture programs provide for rapid hearings and forfeiture actions to allow for quick lien sales, thus avoiding high storage costs. As vehicle sanctions become more widely used, it will be important for effective law enforcement programs, as well as for research, to include impoundment data on the driving record.