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Misdemeanor Drug Offenders Could Lose Their Licenses

People convicted of drug crimes in Illinois could face an automatic six-month suspension of their drivers’ licenses, a proposal that is drawing sharp criticism from drug policy analysts.

House Bill 5720 would require drug offenders to stay out of the driver’s seat for a period of six months for the first offense and one year for additional offenses, whether or not their arrest involved the use of a vehicle. The bill passed the House Vehicles and Safety Committee 4-3 last month and is currently awaiting a vote in the House.

Pointing to similar laws in 32 states, advocates of the bill argue that it would make roads safer by preventing known drug users from getting behind the wheel. But opponents say the rule is unnecessarily harsh and would make it harder for drug offenders to get their lives back on track.

The bill would mostly affect those convicted of minor drug crimes who would be punished with fines, probation or short jail sentences, as those receiving lengthier jail time would already see their licenses revoked during their sentences.

Rep. Sidney Mathias (R-Arlington Heights), who introduced the bill, said he hopes to deter young people from doing drugs by taking away something they truly value – their car keys.

“This hopefully will send a message that if you do take drugs, not only will you suffer criminal penalties but driving privileges,” Mathias said. “To some people, the driving privileges are even more important.”

Mathias said the driving force behind the bill was Thomas Glasgow, a trustee of the Village of Arlington Heights and lawyer who says he has been involved as both prosecutor and defender in some 10,000 DUI cases.

“The legislature has determined that we shouldn’t be doing drugs. Period. The legislature has determined that impaired driving is a hazard. Period,” Glasgow said. “This (bill) is the next logical step.”

Glasgow recalls defending a woman arrested for marijuana possession; two weeks later she ran a stop sign, costing the man she collided with his leg. The woman was not visibly intoxicated, Glasgow said, but blood tests showed she had marijuana in her system.

Such incidents are common, Glasgow said, because drugs can stay in a person’s body for up to 90 days – long after the person has ceased to be visibly inebriated.

But that logic is flawed, said Kathy Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. While drugs may be stored in a person’s fat cells and urine for weeks after use, she said, this does not affect a person’s motor skills.

The law would also wreak havoc on offenders’ lives, Kane-Willis said. Without a drivers’ license, a drug offender could lose their job and be unable to access treatment, health care or social services.

“This could make the situation much more complicated for people who have drug disorders,” she said. “This is harmful legislation.”

An early version of the bill included a provision for offenders to use a court-issued drivers’ permit to attend treatment or work, but that provision was removed in an amendment.

The issue is further complicated if the offender is not himself a drug user, noted Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a fair sentencing advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“If you’re under the influence of drugs and you get into a serious accident, it’s reasonable that you might lose your license,” he said. “But if you’re convicted of selling low-level drugs but you yourself are not a drug user, it shouldn’t be mandatory any more than if you committed larceny.”

At the Vehicles and Safety Committee hearing, Stephen Baker, an attorney at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, warned the committee that a similar law was recently challenged and was heard before the Illinois Supreme Court. He urged the committee to postpone action until the results of that trial were available.

“Criminal acts have to have some nexus, some connection,” Baker told the committee. “(There has to be) some use of the vehicle to warrant (license) suspension.”

Under current Illinois law, a person found with drugs in their car can have their drivers’ license revoked. And under a new, 2-year-old law, minors under the age of 21 who are convicted of underage drinking have their licenses suspended for six months.

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