Justine McDaniel - November 29, 2019
Every time Chelsey Sirmons got arrested, the date he could legally drive again moved further out of reach. None of his crimes had to do with driving or cars: They were drug charges, such as possessing paraphernalia. But under Pennsylvania law, that meant an automatic license suspension.
Sirmons has been out of prison and in sober recovery for almost five years. He’s a certified recovery specialist in Pittsburgh and runs workshops for families dealing with substance abuse. He’s studying to earn a degree in social work.
But his string of misdemeanor convictions extended his driver’s license suspension. It’s not scheduled to end until 2026.
Sirmons is one of an estimated tens of thousands — possibly more — in Pennsylvania who are barred from driving despite never having been convicted of a driving-related offense.
“When you’ve already served your time, and you come home and you’re trying to better your life, it’s like you’re still incarcerated," said Sirmons, 46. “It’s another sentence.”
Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators last year passed a law that, going forward, eliminates such suspensions for violations unrelated to driving. But the law wasn’t retroactive, preventing countless Pennsylvanians from getting back on the road.
Not having a driver’s license can make it difficult for people to get and keep jobs, to see or care for their children, and to get medical or addiction care, especially in areas without robust public transportation. Advocates say suspensions for non-driving infractions are an unfair barrier to people who need to turn around their lives, increases the risk of addiction relapse, and disproportionately impact people of color or in poverty.
“It’s bad enough we’re battling all these uphill battles, but then, the system is out to keep us down as well,” Sirmons said.
Passed decades ago, the Pennsylvania law mirrored ones in other states that were tied to federal highway funding. The laws automatically suspended the licenses of anyone convicted of drug offenses, having a fake ID, or underage purchase of tobacco or alcohol. Only a handful of states, including New Jersey, still have such laws.
Civil rights advocates say Pennsylvania should make the new law retroactive, lifting suspensions for all former offenders.
Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington-based group, contends the governor and PennDot have the authority to do so. It plans to send a letter signed by more than 30 organizations to Wolf on Monday, asking him to act. Dozens of Pennsylvanians have contacted Equal Justice Under Law asking about their suspended licenses since the change was enacted last year, executive director Phil Telfeyan said.
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