Cities look for ways to curb drivers with invalid licenses

Jail sentences and vehicle impoundment are part of a crackdown. But critics say such efforts target the poor.

A Chicago area man caught driving with a revoked license was facing the music in a Cook County courtroom. A plea agreement netted him probation, community service, a fine, and continued license suspension. He promised the judge he would not drive.

Minutes later, police arrested him as he drove away from the courthouse. Hauled back to the bench, the angry judge ordered him to jail without bail for at least 10 days.

The case is one example of how free people feel to drive despite revoked or suspended licenses - and how cities and states are trying to crack down on such scofflaws. Indeed, some officials say such illegal driving has reached a crisis point, endangering public safety and undermining respect for the law.

But various attempts to reverse the trend are encountering some bumps along the way - usually centering on concerns that poor drivers are unfairly targeted.

• Since 1999, Seattle has impounded thousands of cars operated by drivers with suspended licenses. Activists argue that the law is unfair, and a judge has ruled that police officers must consider "reasonable alternatives" before they confiscate cars.

• The case of a Philadelphia councilman who had been driving for 25 years without a valid license aimed a bright light at the city's Live Stop program. Under the program, police can impound the vehicles of people driving with suspended licenses and no insurance, but politics keep it limited to a pilot program that covers only one-eighth of the city.

• Portland, Maine, charges 700 people a year, on average, with driving on a suspended license. A state law allows police to confiscate such drivers' cars, but only if the suspension resulted from a drunken-driving conviction. During the past four years, officials say, one car has been seized under the law statewide.

Few dispute the magnitude of the problem. Of 180 million registered drivers in the United States, 33.6 million are driving with licenses that are suspended, revoked, or denied. Illegal drivers are involved in 1 in 5 traffic fatalities each year - and 28 percent of those drivers had their licenses suspended or revoked at least three times in the three years prior to the crash, according to a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study last year.

In Illinois, a tragic accident last Christmas, in which a firefighter helping a stranded motorist was hit by a driver with a suspended license, led to stiffer penalties. An offender caught three times driving despite a suspended license now gets 30 days in jail.

But getting tough in the legislature and getting tough on the streets can be two different things. The sting operation that caught the Chicago area man, for instance, began only after news stories in the Chicago Sun-Times recounted daily instances of scofflaws leaving their license-suspension hearings and driving away. The undercover operations netted more than 70 violators, but police acknowledge they don't have the manpower to sustain such operations.

Another challenge is that politicians are divided over whether to gently slap the hands of drivers with suspended licenses or to crack down. The Philadelphia program, for instance, has stalled over the mayor's concern that insurance rates in the city are too high, and that forcing the poor to insure their vehicles, or confiscating them if they don't, discriminates against the disadvantaged.

"The system isn't perfect," says Councilman James Kenney. "But if we're getting hundreds of cars off the street, we're doing something - we're preventing accidents, saving lives, and ... delaying when those illegal drivers can get back on the street."

There seem to be two choices for clamping down on illegal drivers: impounding the vehicle, or fining or jailing the driver. Highway-safety experts say only vehicle seizure is foolproof.

"When you have someone's car, their hearts and minds will follow," says Mark Sidran, Seattle's city attorney, who has led a crusade there against illegal drivers. "When you see that tow truck pull up and take your car, it really has an impact that being told you have to go to court in 30 days doesn't have."

Today, Seattle police impound more than a dozen cars a day. Among owners of such vehicles, 95 percent do not "re-offend" in the year after impound, he says.

But the practice is controversial. Activists say it has a disproportionate impact on the poor. They see a domino effect, in which low-income drivers can't afford to pay traffic tickets, often for minor offenses, and are then subject to license suspension. The next step is vehicle impoundment. Unable to pay for the initial ticket, much less towing and impoundment fees, they often simply see their cars sold at auction.

The ruling that Seattle police must seek other alternatives before seizing cars, Mr. Sidran says, will essentially end the program. The city is appealing the decision.

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