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Effectiveness: 4 Star Cost: Varies
Use: Medium
Time: Short

Many States have implemented sanctions affecting a DWI offender’s license plate or vehicle. These sanctions are intended to prevent the offender from driving the vehicle while the sanctions are in effect, and to deter impaired driving by the general public. Vehicle and plate sanctions include:

  • Special license plates for drivers whose licenses have been revoked or suspended. The plates allow family members and other people to drive the offender’s vehicle but permit law enforcement to stop the vehicle to verify that the driver is properly licensed.
  • License plate impoundment. Officers seize and impound or destroy the license plate.
  • Vehicle immobilization. Vehicles are immobilized on the offender’s property with a “boot” or “club.”
  • Vehicle impoundment. Vehicles are stored in a public impound lot.
  • Vehicle forfeiture. Vehicles are confiscated and sold at auction.

NHTSA (2008e), DeYoung (2013b), and Voas et al. (2004) give an overview of vehicle and license plate sanctions and are the basic references for the information provided below. See also Brunson and Knighten (2005), and Neuman et al. (2003). All vehicle and license plate sanctions require at least several months to implement.

Use, effectiveness, and costs:

  • Special license plates: Special license plates are permitted in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Oregon (NCSL, 2016b). Ohio requires special plates for all first-time offenders with BACs of .17 g/dL and above and for all repeat offenders. Effectiveness and costs have not been evaluated in any State. In the 1990s Oregon and Washington adopted a version of this strategy by allowing arresting officers to place a “zebra stripe” sticker on the license plate at the time of arrest. Oregon’s program proved effective in reducing DWI recidivism, but Washington’s did not. Use has been discontinued in both States (Neuman et al., 2003; NHTSA, 2008e).
  • License plate impoundment: License plate impoundment is used in at least 9 States (NHTSA, 2017). In Minnesota license plate impoundment administered by the arresting officer was shown to reduce both recidivism and driving with a suspended license, especially among the youngest offenders (Leaf & Preusser, 2011; Rogers, 1994). As plate impoundment does not involve the courts, it occurs quickly, consistently, and efficiently (Neuman et al., 2003; NHTSA, 2008e; NTSB, 2000).
  • Vehicle immobilization: Laws in 12 States allow vehicle immobilization (NHTSA, 2017). An evaluation in Ohio found that immobilization reduced recidivism (Voas et al., 1998). Costs are minimal compared to impoundment or forfeiture (Neuman et al., 2003; NTSB, 2000).
  • Vehicle impoundment: From the last available information in 2017 there were 13 States and the District of Columbia that allow for vehicle impoundment and some use it extensively (NHTSA, 2017). The strategy is costly, and owners may abandon low-value vehicles rather than pay substantial storage costs (Neuman et al., 2003; NTSB, 2000). Towing fees are often considerable, and storage fees can range from $18 to $95 per day (City of Columbus, 2019; San Jose Police Department, 2018). In California impoundment programs are administered largely by towing contractors and supported by fees paid when drivers reclaim their vehicles or by the sale of unclaimed vehicles. An evaluation of California’s impoundment law found both first-time and repeat offenders whose vehicles were impounded had fewer subsequent arrests for driving with a suspended license and fewer crashes (DeYoung, 1997). In 2010 Ontario introduced 7-day vehicle impoundment for drivers with BACs over .08 g/dL or who refused the BAC test. The measure was associated with a 29% reduction in DWI re-offenses occurring within 3 months of the end of license suspension (Byrne, Ma, & Elzohairy, 2016). However, two-follow up studies found that vehicle impoundment programs in Canada have not reduced alcohol-related crashes or fatalities among the general driving population (Byrne, Ma, Mann & Elzohairy, 2016; Smith et al., 2019). This suggests vehicle impoundment is effective at specific deterrence—that is, discouraging offenders from re-offending—but has little general deterrence effect.
  • Vehicle forfeiture: Twenty-nine States have provisions allowing vehicle forfeiture for impaired driving or driving with a suspended license (NHTSA, 2017); however, there is little information on its use or effectiveness. Vehicle forfeiture programs must pay storage costs until the vehicles are sold or otherwise disposed (Neuman et al., 2003; NTSB, 2000).

Time to implement:

Vehicle and license plate sanctions can be implemented as soon as appropriate legislation is enacted.

Other considerations:

  • To whom are vehicle sanctions applied: Most vehicle sanctions have been applied to repeat offenders rather than first offenders, although some States also apply vehicle sanctions to high-BAC first offenders (e.g., BACs of .15 g/dL or higher). If someone other than the offender owns the vehicle, a State should consider requiring the vehicle owner to sign an affidavit stating the owner will not allow the offender to drive the vehicle while the suspension is in effect (NHTSA, 2008e).
  • Administrative issues: All license plate and vehicle sanctions require an administrative structure to process the license plates or vehicles. Laws should permit officers to impound vehicles or license plates at the time of arrest so offenders do not have the opportunity to transfer vehicle ownership (NHTSA, 2008e).