Laws in every state provide for license suspension and revocation when drivers have broken specific laws. License suspension means that one’s license has been temporarily lifted; revocation means that the license has been taken away permanently. With suspension, the driver may or may not have to take action to reinstate the license; with revocation, drivers must reapply.
Commonly, the underlying offense for either suspension or revocation is driving-related, such as speeding or driving under the influence. Suspending or revoking the driver’s right to drive in these situations is intended to protect public safety. But suspensions and revocations can be triggered by non-driving activity, too, such as by failing to pay child support. Here, the rationale is that because losing one’s license is a major inconvenience, those with child support obligations will take their payments more seriously than if the consequence for nonpayment were less onerous.
The police cannot stop a driver simply because the officer suspects that the driver lacks a current license. The officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver has broken another law, such as driving under the influence or failing to stop at a stop sign.
For state-by-state information on revocation and suspension laws, see Nolo’s Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License (consult the chart and click the state name for detailed information).
Reasons for Suspending a License
States have a variety of reasons for suspending or revoking drivers’ licenses. Depending on the state, either the courts or an administrative agency (such as a department of motor vehicles), or sometimes both, can suspend and revoke licenses. Reasons include:
- for driving-related behavior, such as when the driver has been convicted of driving under the influence or other reckless behavior, including racing and hit-and-run
- for drivers who have used their cars to commit a felony
- when drivers who are repeat vehicle code offenders have amassed a certain number of negative “points” in their driving records
- when drivers have driven or engaged in any activity that would have justified that state’s denial of a driving license in the first place
- when drivers have caused an accident and have no insurance or other financial ability to cover loss and damage
- when drivers have failed to pay child support
- in some states, when drivers have a medical condition that imperils their ability to drive safely, including visual problems, diabetes, and epilepsy, and
- in some states, when the state agency in charge of licensing decides, in their discretion, that allowing the driver to continue to drive would compromise public safety.
Restricted Driving to School or Work, and Ignition Interlock Devices
Sometimes a driver who would normally completely lose the right to drive through suspension can ask for a limited suspension, with permission to drive to work, school, community service, or other activities, with further limits on when such driving can take place. Drivers whose suspension was the result of a conviction for driving while under the influence can sometimes obtain the right to drive if they agree to place an ignition interlock device in their car, which will prevent the car from starting if the device detects a specified amount of alcohol in the driver’s breath.
State laws typically specify that drivers must meet certain conditions before getting their license back (suspension) or getting a new one (revocation). These conditions include:
- paying a reinstatement fee
- participating in an alcohol treatment program, or paying past due child support, and
- proof of financial ability (accomplished by proof of insurance or sufficient funds to cover an accident).
States vary as to whether the driver must wait for the court or agency to acknowledge that they have fulfilled all conditions and give an official “okay” for the suspension to lift. Some states require an affirmative nod from the agency; others do not. Drivers whose licenses have been revoked must apply for a new license and generally show that they have fulfilled all conditions.
Penalties for Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License
Drivers who continue to drive while their licenses are suspended or revoked face a misdemeanor charge. Jail time and fines are the penalties, with increased punishment for those who are repeat offenders.
When a driver begins driving after the suspension period is over, but before the driver has fulfilled all conditions, the resulting charge may be either:
- driving on a suspended license (the suspension period expands until the conditions are met), or
- driving without a valid license.
The distinction can be important, because many states provide for different penalties, depending on whether the offense is driving on a suspended license or without a valid license.
Questions to Ask Your Lawyer
License suspensions and revocations, which may not strike you as major crimes, can nevertheless become a major inconvenience and hassle. If you are facing charges or are in a situation that may result in a suspension or revocation, it makes sense to consult with a local criminal defense attorney in your area. A knowledgeable lawyer can advise you of your options, which often depend on how matters like yours are handled in your courthouse, by the judges and prosecutors involved. You might want to ask your lawyer:
- Facing charges that can result in a suspension or revocation: Is it possible to plea-bargain this case to a lesser offense, which will not have these consequences?
- How much discretion does the licensing authority in our state have over suspensions and revocations? Are they limited by statute to certain situations, or do they have broad discretion?
- Facing charges for driving on a suspended or revoked license: Is it too late to challenge the basis for the suspension or revocation?