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License Suspensions for Drug Convictions Just Got Better

License Suspensions for Drug Convictions Just Got BetterHave you ever been told, “Don’t just stand there, do something?”

Often times, “doing something” is a terrible idea, yet folks cannot seem to let go of this impulse to pretend that “doing something” will help the situation.

Here’s an important observation of Seth Godin regarding our impulse to ‘do something’:

doing something makes us feel like we’re making the problem go away. Sometimes the problem isn’t going to go away. Everything we do at a funeral isn’t going to bring the person back from the dead. Everything we do in a courtroom isn’t going to help in the short run, even the long run, the victim of that crime. The idea that people in government need to ‘do something and do it right now’ because we are in pain is one of the weakest points of democracy. . . .

The alternative is to stand there. Not to stand there and ignore the situation, but to stand there and accept the situation. Yes, this happened. Yes, this situation exists. Yes, we are uncomfortable. Yes, the answer is complicated. Yes, we don’t know exactly what to do. So, we’re going to stand here. We’re going to stand here not ignoring it but immersing ourselves in it, thinking as hard as we can to understand–maybe for a second, maybe longer–what that other person, what that other force, what that situation needs.”

Seth Godin, Akimbo podcast, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, August 8, 2019.

Sometimes, good things come to those who wait.

Sometimes, doing nothing is a good thing. It gives you time to think about the situation.

And that’s the good news for today. It seems like our legislature has given some things a bit of thought, and as a result, we’re seeing several promising changes to our criminal laws, which took effect a few days ago, on October 1st, 2019.

One such improvement involves convictions for drug offenses and the mandatory driver’s license suspension that comes along with every conviction.

When I started defending criminal cases in 1993, the license suspension on any drug conviction was two (2) years. Several years ago, that was reduced to one (1) year. Still, not driving for one year because of a $350 fine on a weed charge seems excessive. License suspensions due to drug charge convictions take some people by surprise–mostly because the judge is not required to inform a citizen about what the DMV will do to them later. Here’s an unofficial, rough transcript of how these calls usually go:

ME: What can I help you with today?

CALLER: Well, I got this marijuana citation–I wasn’t arrested–but I showed up in court and got a $750 fine. I thought the case was over, but weeks later the DMV sent me something saying my license would be suspended for one year. I have to drive for work and for my kids.

ME: So, you went to court without an attorney?

CALLER: Yes, pretty dumb, right?

ME: No worries, we can fix this. Unfortunately, being convicted of a drug crime–even a small weed citation–will suspend your license for one year, sorry to say.

CALLER: But the judge never told me my license would be suspended for one year.

ME: The judge doesn’t have to tell you this. The good news is if it’s been less than 30 days since you went to court, maybe we can still get your license back. Or, if it’s been longer, we can even get you a license back before the one year is up–but you’ll have to jump through some hoops.

I feel bad asking questions I already know the answer to, like, “So, you went to court without an attorney?” If this person had an attorney, their license probably wouldn’t have been suspended. But, that’s a story for another day.

Back to the new law.

The new law, found in Florida Statute 322.055, reduces the driver’s license suspension for drug convictions to six (6) months. That’s good news.

But there’s one wrinkle.

Under the old law, if I represented someone and this drug conviction license suspension was unavoidable, one of the tricks of the trade was to get the judge to–immediately–order a Business Purposes Only License (BPO). We won’t dig too deep into BPO’s here, but they permit a citizen to keep driving to work, school, church, the doctor. It’s a great deal.

The old law permitted BPO’s by stating that “the court may, in its sound discretion, direct the department to issue a license for driving privilege restricted to business or employment purposes only.” [emphasis added]

Under the new law, it seems like things have gotten a tad tighter. Florida Statute 322.055(1), now states that “the court may, upon finding a compelling circumstance to warrant an exception, direct the department to issue a license for driving privilege restricted to business or employment purposes only.” [emphasis added]

I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to keep people driving to work under the new law, but there is no current definition of “compelling circumstance”. My guess is, losing your license for six months may cause some folks to lose their job, which may cause them to lose their home, even lose custody of their kids (hard to be homeless with kids). That’s a compelling circumstance, right?

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