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California and the West

Davis Fights to Suspend Licenses in Drug Cases

Driving: Legislators resist federally backed policy, which has lapsed. Opponents say offense, penalty aren't related.

May 24, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Smoke a joint. Get caught. Lose your driver's license for six months.

To Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who has labored to fashion a tougher-than-thou image on law-and-order issues, treatment of those busted for even minor drug offenses should be that simple and severe.

But to the more liberal Democrats who control the California Legislature, a push by Davis to revive a stiff drug policy championed by former U.S drug czar William J. Bennett a decade ago goes way too far--and many are vowing to block it.

It all stems from a 1990 federal law that threatened to slash transportation funding for states unless they do one of two things: Approve a six-month driving suspension for anyone convicted of a drug offense, or pass a resolution declaring a refusal to do so. The state previously implemented the policy, but allowed it to expire.

"Why the governor is so intrigued with this I do not know," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). "This is silly. It's stupid. It's an intrusion by the feds into state laws. They're blackmailing us to do something."

Under the suspension law pushed by the federal legislation, violators would not have to be behind the wheel or in a car to lose driving privileges--which has outraged civil libertarians, who see no connection between the punishment and the crime, and labor unions, which worry that minor offenses might prevent their members from getting to work.

"To workers whose livelihood is dependent on the ability to drive, either at work or to and from work, loss of a driver's license can be equivalent to loss of employment," wrote Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, recently to lawmakers.

In statehouses from Maine to Washington, deciding which course to follow on the "smoke a joint, lose your license" law, as it is known, has proved controversial, and California is no exception. Thirty-two states have opted out, while 18, including California, have chosen to pass laws revoking the licenses.

But California's law--which has resulted in as many as 100,000 suspensions a year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles--recently expired. And Davis is intent on bringing it back, despite objections from lawmakers.

"It is certainly consistent with the governor's approach to being tough on crime," said Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean. "If you are using drugs, you should not be behind the wheel."

From the outset, the issue of whether to suspend drivers' licenses for minor drug offenses has sparked explosive debate in Sacramento, which traditionally treated possession of a small amount of marijuana as severely as running a red light.

Legislators tried to waive the requirement in 1992, but Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, a strong supporter of suspending the licenses, vetoed the state Senate bill. Two years later, fearing the loss of hundreds of millions of federal dollars, lawmakers approved a Wilson-backed bill that imposed the suspensions for one year.

Efforts to permanently resolve the dispute faltered until 1996, when lawmakers passed a bill that reinstated the sanctions for just six months. Fed up by the state's failure to pass permanent legislation, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena notified California that it was not meeting the federal law's requirements, and threatened to place 10% of the state's transportation funding in a reserve fund.

A year later, lawmakers passed two pieces of legislation that many in the capitol believed took care of the controversy once and for all. An Assembly bill extended imposition of the six-month suspensions until June 1999. And a Senate bill declared that when that deadline passed, California would opt out from there on.

Confused, federal officials sent a letter to Davis last year, saying the state was not in compliance. Davis wrote back, explaining the legislative tango and stating that the obligations had, indeed, been met.

That satisfied the folks in Washington. But at the letter's end, Davis made his intentions clear. Even though California had bowed out, he liked the law--and he was going to reignite the debate this year.

A Davis-backed bill by Assemblyman Dean Florez (D-Shafter) does just that. In addition to once again suspending the licenses of all drug violators for six months, it would require one-year suspensions of driving privileges for violators younger than 21.

When the legislation encountered its first test in the lower house, however, it almost died because of opposition from Democrats. Not a single Democrat voted for it initially, and only a series of angry phone calls from the governor to legislative leaders saved it, several lawmakers confirmed.

Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) was one of those who changed his vote to allow the measure to clear the Public Safety Committee, part of an agreement between Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) to keep it moving forward while negotiations continue.

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