Promising Sentencing Practice No. 4
Vehicle and License Plate Sanctions
By Judge G. Michael Witte (Indiana)
A convicted DWI offender may be prevented from driving while intoxicated by:
- Impounding the offender’s vehicle;
- Installing a “club” or parking boot to immobilize the offender’s vehicle; or
- Impounding the license plates for the offender’s vehicle.
The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) mandates that State laws regarding second and subsequent convictions for DWI must require that all vehicles of repeat DWI offenders be impounded or immobilized for some time period during the license suspension period, or require the installation of an ignition interlock system on all of the offender’s vehicles for some time period after the end of the suspension. Otherwise, the State risks losing Federal funding.42
Twenty-seven States have laws authorizing the seizure and impoundment of the vehicles of repeat DWI offenders for a specified time period. Generally, these laws allow law enforcement to impound the vehicle being driven by an offender at the time of arrest if the vehicle is owned by the offender. The vehicle is held in an impound lot until an initial court hearing to determine whether it was legally seized. If seized legally, the vehicle may remain in impound until the conclusion of the trial. The length of the impoundment period is generally 90 days for a second offense and 180 days for a third offense. For a fourth or subsequent offense, the vehicle is subject to forfeiture.
Effectiveness of This Sanction
Vehicle seizure and impoundment have been effective in reducing DWI offenses by separating offenders from their vehicles. A study conducted in Hamilton County, Ohio, found that vehicle impoundment decreased recidivism by large percentages both during and after the impoundment period. For repeat offenders with one prior DWI conviction, the reduction in DWI offenses was 80 percent during the impoundment period and 56 percent after the impoundment period. For repeat offenders with two prior DWI convictions, the reductions during and after the impoundment period were 56 percent and 58 percent, respectively.43
In California, repeat offenders whose vehicles were impounded had 34 percent fewer subsequent convictions for driving while suspended or unlicensed, 22 percent fewer traffic convictions, and 38 percent fewer crashes, as compared with another control group of repeat offenders.44
A study that examined the recidivism rate of drivers sanctioned under the Portland, Oregon, forfeiture ordinance found that “perpetrators whose vehicles were seized could reliably expect to be re-arrested on average half as often as those whose vehicles were not.”45
Club or Parking Boot
When impounding a repeat DWI offender’s vehicle is impractical because of the cost of storage, lack of available storage facilities, or for other reasons, some judges have ordered the installation of a club device on the steering wheel or of a parking boot as a method of immobilizing the offender’s vehicle. A study conducted in Franklin County, Ohio, found a recidivism rate of 0-2 percent by offenders during the period their vehicles were immobilized by the club. These offenders also had a lower recidivism rate after the end of the sanction period than other DWI offenders whose vehicles had not been subject to this sanction.46
License Plate Impoundment
Twenty States have laws allowing the license plates of a repeat DWI offender’s vehicle to be impounded. This sanction has been more widely used when law enforcement authorities, rather than the courts, are given the authority to confiscate license plates.47
An evaluation of Minnesota’s license plate impoundment law found that offenders whose plates were impounded by the arresting officer had one-half the recidivism rate compared to similar offenders whose plates were not impounded.48
In Michigan, the metal license plate on the vehicle being driven by a repeat offender is destroyed at the time of arrest, whether or not the offender is the owner of the vehicle, and a temporary paper license plate is issued allowing the vehicle to be driven legally. A new metal license plate is not issued until the offender’s case is resolved in court.
“Zebra Tagging” License Plates
Oregon and Washington experimented with “zebra tag” laws intended to deter drivers whose licenses had been suspended from driving and to allow police officers to readily detect these drivers who were continuing to drive. These laws authorized police officers to place a special striped sticker over the license plate registration tag, and gave officers probable cause for stopping a vehicle bearing this sticker to check the license status of the driver. This sanction allows family members who share use of the vehicle with the offender to continue to use the vehicle.
In Oregon, zebra tagging was found to be effective in decreasing the rates of accidents, moving violations, and DWI offenses by both drivers who had received zebra tags and those at risk of receiving a tag because they had suspended licenses. In Washington, zebra tagging was not found to have any effect on subsequent violations or accidents by tagged drivers. The difference in results may have been due to the fact that the law was applied to twice as many drivers in Oregon as in Washington.49 Nevertheless, the Oregon and Washington legislatures have allowed the zebra tag laws to expire.50
Ohio recently strengthened its penalties for repeat DWI offenders by, among other things, giving the court the discretion to require a restricted license plate (“family plate”) on conviction of a first offense, but making the restricted plate mandatory on second and subsequent offenses.51