Is Driving a Right or a Privilege?

September 15, 2010

The accident that claimed the life of veteran state police officer Kenneth Hall along I-91 in Enfield earlier this month raises some serious questions about Connecticut’s motor vehicle laws and how they apply to those who repeatedly violate them. The driver of the vehicle responsible for the horrific accident had a lengthy motor vehicle record that included multiple driving under the influence (DUI) and speeding convictions. He was also charged once with passing a school bus, scary when you think of the magnitude of damage that was incurred through this accident. These violations resulted in his license being suspended 10 times dating back to 2001.

The question that arose immediately following the accident was; how is someone with their license suspended 10 times even allowed back behind the wheel? After all, driving is supposed to be a privilege not a right, and with that privilege there is responsibility. What does it take to have that privilege taken away for good? Unfortunately, the facts involving this case indicate that it takes an awful lot to get one’s license revoked permanently.

There is a wide array of motor vehicle convictions that will result in the suspension of someone’s license or registration. Cases are adjudicated by the Judicial Branch but the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has broad statutory authority in which he may suspend a driver’s license or vehicle registration “for any cause that he deems sufficient, with or without hearing.” Nevertheless, most penalties that are assessed are graduated which means they are based on prior offenses. That is why revocation doesn’t occur very often because it usually takes multiple serious offenses to get to that level. Even then, some judges are reluctant to permanently revoke someone’s license.

Another reason deals with the point system. Under Sec. 14-137 of the Connecticut General Statute, the DMV can assess points to someone’s license for the conviction of any violation of the motor vehicle laws. Points are issued based on the severity of the violation and will remain on someone’s license for up to two years from the day in which they are assessed. Rack up enough points and the license can be subject to suspension. The more points the longer the suspension.

However, in order to reduce the number of motor vehicle cases coming before the courts, the General Assembly in 1995 allowed people to plead “no contest” (not a conviction) and agree to pay a fine for the infraction in exchange for no points being assessed to their license. Therefore, even though a violation is on someone’s driving record, it is less likely that it would result in a suspension. Depending on the severity of the offense, someone committing the infraction can be issued a mail-in ticket or be summoned to appear in court and answer to a judge.

At the time of the Enfield crash the license of the driver who caused the incident was not under Connecticut suspension. With the exception of DUI, evading responsibility and operating a vehicle while under suspension, the maximum suspension time for most motor vehicle convictions in Connecticut is 1 year or less.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Two different agencies handling motor vehicle violations, coupled with laws that encourage short term suspensions which allow people with lengthy motor vehicle records to get their licenses back.

Driving is a privilege not a right, but sometimes it seems as if the laws on the books have it backwards.