The Solomon–Lautenberg amendment is a U.S. federal law enacted in 1990, encouraging states to suspend the driver's license of anyone who commits a drug offense. A number of states passed laws in the early 1990s seeking to comply with the amendment, in order to avoid a penalty of reduced federal highway funds. These laws imposed mandatory driver's license suspensions of at least six months for persons committing a drug offense, regardless of whether any motor vehicle was involved in the offense. Although the amendment does contain a provision for states to opt out without penalty, five states still have such laws in effect as of 2020.
The Solomon–Lautenberg amendment is named after its chief sponsors, Rep. Jerry Solomon (R–NY) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ). It was signed into law on November 5, 1990, as part of the 1991 Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. The amendment urged states to impose a mandatory driver's license suspension of at least six months for persons committing any type of drug offense, even for offenses unrelated to driving. These suspensions were stipulated to apply to all illegal drugs (in any amounts), including the simple possession of cannabis. States that took no action faced a 5% cut in federal highway funds by October 1993, and a 10% cut by October 1995. As a result, many states passed so-called "Smoke a joint, lose your license" laws.
The amendment also allows states to "opt out" of being subject to the penalty. To opt out, both the legislature and governor of a state must approve a resolution declaring their opposition to the suspension policy. The resolution is then sent to the Federal Highway Administration, which certifies that a state has properly opted out. The process can take up to two years to complete. In regards to the reasoning for this process, an official in the Bush administration explained: "This forces the states to be accountable. We're not going to force you, but if you don't want to do it, you'll have to be public about it."
The Solomon–Lautenberg amendment was criticized at the time by groups such as the National Governors Association and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but received little attention leading up to the bill's passage. Speaking in support of his amendment, Rep. Solomon stated:
Yes, we should do everything possible to interdict drugs coming into the country. Yes, we should provide adequate funds to treat addicts. And yes, we should jail – and in some cases even execute – those involved in the sale of drugs in this country. ... But let's not kid ourselves. That is not enough. ... Taking away driver's licenses in an automobile-oriented society will show that we are serious.
As of 2020 there are five states that continue to suspend licenses in accordance with the amendment: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Texas. An estimated 191,000 licenses were suspended for non-driving drug offenses in the year 2016, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Jurisdictions that have opted out since 2009 include: Wisconsin (2009), Oklahoma (2010), Indiana (2014), Delaware (2014), Georgia (2015), Massachusetts (2016), Ohio (2016), the District of Columbia (2017), Utah (2018), Iowa (2018), Pennsylvania (2018), New York (2019), Mississippi (2019), New Jersey (2019), and Virginia (2020). Virginia also passed opt-out legislation in 2017 that only applied to cannabis.
"Smoke a joint, lose your license" laws have been criticized for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the punishment often has nothing to do with the crime. The severity of punishment is also considered to be excessive, due to the life-altering impacts that losing one's license can cause. Loss of driving privileges can lead to loss of employment, which a New Jersey study showed happened in 42% of suspension cases. In 45% of these cases, individuals were not able to find another job.
Many who lose their license also continue to drive, a number PPI estimates to be as high as a 75%. Drivers will then face even more severe punishments if caught, which further ties up police and other government resources.
Critics have also noted the severe impact on minorities and low-income communities that these suspensions can cause. In New Jersey, 16% of the state population is considered low income, while 50% of people with suspended licenses are classified as such. These individuals are then burdened by reinstatement fees that must be paid (up to $275 in Alabama), plus court fines and other fees. Car insurance rates can also rise, even for suspensions that had nothing to do with driving.
Efforts to repeal
In 2017, U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke introduced the Better Drive Act, a bill which sought to repeal the Solomon–Lautenberg amendment. To coincide with its introduction, more than 30 advocacy groups signed a letter calling for the amendment's repeal. Among the signatories of the letter was the NAACP, along with other civil rights, criminal justice reform, and addiction recovery organizations.
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