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The Des Moines Register
Wednesday, February 7, 1996, Page 1M

Court restores driving privileges

  • The ruling says the state may not automatically suspend licenses of
    convicted drug dealers.


    Hundreds of convicted drug dealers will have their driving privileges restored and the state of Iowa could lose more than $16 million annually in federal highway aid as a result of a little-noticed decision issued last month by the Iowa Supreme Court.
    The court struck down a 1993 state law that calls for the automatic six-month suspension of the driver's license of anyone convicted of a drug-related criminal charge.  According to the court, the license suspension was an unconstitutional second punishment for a single criminal action.

Subject to Suspension
    Shirley Andre, chief of the Department of Transportation motor vehicle division, said 8,483 people with drug convictions were subject to the suspension law before the court nullified it with its decision Jan. 17.
    With the decision, Andre said, the department stopped imposing new suspensions and lifted those that were in effect.  Although the department has yet to systematically contact those serving their suspension that driving privileges have been restored, officials have informed drug offenders who have inquired about their driving status.
    Transportation officials have decided against expunging drug-related suspensions from the driving records of those who have already completed them, Andre said.
    The Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by Richard Dressler of Des Moines, who in March 1994 was stopped by authorities near Huxley for a broken taillight.   Officers discovered a small quantity of marijuana in his possession.  Dressler pleaded guilty and paid the fine on the criminal charge.
    He challenged the license suspension in court.  Ironically, disposition of the case took so long that Dressler served the full suspension, so the ruling has no practical effect on him.
    "It's the first step in the right direction of common sense," said Jeff Crispin, the Des Moines lawyer who represented Dressler.  "There's no logical connection between these drug offenses and driving privileges."

Unrelated Charges
    The court decision addresses only license suspension for drug offenses that are unrelated to driving, such as possession or sale of drugs.  It has no bearing on license suspensions for those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.  In fact, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an opinion on the same day last month upholding precedures for suspending the licenses of drivers charged with driving under the influence.
    Three years ago, Gov. Terry Branstad recommended to the Legislature passage of license suspensions in drug cases.  Branstad's support of such a policy as a get-tough measure only partially explains how the law came to be.
    In addition, the federal government said failure by Iowa or any other state to pass such a measure would cost state governments 5 percent of their federal highway aid in 1994, and 10 percent in subsequent years.  At the time, transportion department lobbyists told lawmakers that the higher percentage represented about $16 million a year for Iowa.  The sum presumably would be higher now, Andre said.
    The federal deadline for state action on the legislation has passed, so the Supreme Court's decision to nullify the Iowa law leaves the status of future federal highway aid questionable.  Andre said officials are preparing a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena explaining the situation and seeking his guidance.
    "To my knowledge, no other state has been fraced with this particular challenge," said Andre.
    In addition to sorting things out with federal highway officials, Andre said her agency has been discussing with Branstad staff possible legislative responses to the court's decision.
    Andre and David Hudson, Branstad's legislative lobbyist, say it's too early to know what course of action will be recommended this session to the Legislature.   The options include repealing the unconstitutional provision outright, or developing a substitute provision that would achieve the same goals in a constitutional way.
    In 1993, the federal government permitted states that opposed the license suspension policy for drug offenders to preserve their full highway allotment by passing a legislative resolution stating their intention not to pass such a law.   Even if that option remains for Iowa officials - and it's not clear that it does - Andre said it's an unlikely course of action, given Branstad's support for the suspension policy.

The Des Moines Register
Wednesday, February 7, 1996, Page 1M

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