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Lawsuit Alleges License Suspension Law Illegally Discriminates Against Drug Offenders

Keith Srakocic
PennDOT and Gov. Tom Wolf were sued in federal court Wed., Jan. 10, 2018, for suspending the licenses of drivers convicted of drug offenses.

Two Philadelphia men sued Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation this week for automatically suspending their driver’s licenses when they were convicted of minor drug offenses.


The suspensions were mandated under a state law, which the class-action lawsuit calls “irrational, counterproductive, and discriminatory.”


“Drug convictions, in and of themselves, are wholly unrelated to traffic safety,” the complaint asserts. “Pennsylvania’s suspension policy can only be explained as state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of particular animus toward people with drug convictions.”


The lawsuit points out that 38 states have already abolished suspension regimes similar Pennsylvania’s, which it describes as a vestige of the War on Drugs.


In Pennsylvania, the lawsuit says, more than 149,000 people have had their driver's licenses suspended due to drug-related convictions since 2011.


“Nobody benefits from a law that suspends the licenses of people who are safe drivers,” said attorney Phil Telfeyan of Equal Justice Under Law, the civil rights organization representing the plaintiffs.


Based in Washington, DC, the organization filed the class action against PennDOT and Governor Wolf in federal court Wednesday.

The complaint describes Pennsylvania’s suspension system as counterproductive because, the document says, it “burdens virtually every aspect of a person’s life while undercutting the state’s interests in rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism.”

One of the two named plaintiffs, Sean Williams, has an infant son who was born prematurely and remains in the hospital, according to the complaint. Without a license, Williams, who was convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2017, said he finds it difficult to visit his son.

Because his license is suspended until March 2019, Telfeyan said the problem could persist after Williams’ son comes home.

“If anything happens – most parents would want to rush their child back to the hospital to get immediate treatment; they jump in the car, and they drive to the hospital,” Telfeyan noted. “Mr. Williams can’t do that.”

The other named plaintiff, Russell Harold, has struggled to keep his home cleaning business afloat. Convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana and Xanax in 2017, the complaint says, Harold has lost clients who are not willing to transport him and his cleaning supplies to and from their homes.


Harold also struggles to keep doctor’s appointments, according to the complaint, which ties such obstacles to a cycle of poverty that prevents low-income people from maintaining employment or pursuing education.

Under state law, drug-related driver’s license suspensions last six months to two years. PennDOT is charged with enforcing the law, but in October a PennDOT official said the department supports repealing it through legislation that has been proposed in the state House.


PennDOT declined to comment on the pending litigation.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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