Politician Proposes DUI “Scarlet Letter” License Plate

Posted by Jon Ibanez on February 15th, 2016

Mississippi House of Representative member Gary Chism, R-Columbus has proposed a bill that would force people convicted of two or more drunk driving offenses to display a special license plate which would indicate that they are DUI offenders.

A similar law already exists in Minnesota. Certain DUI offenders in Minnesota are required to display what are known as “whiskey plates,” license plates that begin with “W” followed by a second letter and then four numbers.

Earlier this month, Chism filed HB 548, also known as the Scarlet Letter Driving Under the Influence License Plate Act. If approved, DUI offenders who have been convicted of a second or third DUI would be required to display a license plate that is “yellow, with bold red letters and/or numbers.”

Under Chism’s law, a second offense would require the plate for at least a year. A third offense would require the plate for three years.

"You have a drinking problem if you’ve been caught twice," said Chism. "If everyone knows by you having that tag, it may make you realize what your problem is."

While Chism has his doubts about whether his bill can become law at the moment, he believes that it is important to continue to push for a “DUI scarlet letter.”

"I doubt it’s going to become law at this time, but I think this is just the beginning of it. It has been a big conversation piece that needs to continue," he said. "Theoretically, you need the scarlet letter tag before the felony. If you haven’t learned your lesson after two DUIs, I think a little shaming might help before we send you to the pen (for the felony DUI)."

Chism makes no secret that the purpose of his proposed legislation is to stigmatize and humiliate DUI offenders. His logic is that the shame associated with having to drive with one of these plates will serve as a deterrent to future DUI offenses for the offender as well as observers.

Surely, the plate would serve as a punishment, but is the threat of having to be stigmatized with the plate any more of a deterrent than other punishments associated with a DUI; fines, fees, a DUI program, probation, an ignition interlock device, possibly jail time?

More importantly, could there be unintended consequences of the stigmatization? The ACLU thinks so.

“[It] does nothing more than humiliate an individual based on past decisions" and could lead to "unfair and unreasonable targeting by law enforcement," said Zakiya Summers who the Mississippi ACLU director of communications. "The mandatory fine, incarceration and community services serve as a sufficient and much more rational deterrent. Five days in jail often leads to loss of employment, and this tag provides another barrier to employment."

I couldn’t agree more. Normally officers need probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime before they can stop you and investigate for a crime. However, law enforcement will be more likely to pull someone over merely because of the plate regardless of whether they have the constitutionally required probable cause to do so. Such stops are illegal.

What’s more, the plate could cause problems with other drivers on the road. What are other motorists going to do in the presence of someone with the special license plate? Avoid them on the road because they’re a danger? Stare at them causing motorists to take their eyes off of the road in front of them? Could other motorists be compelled to express anger at the DUI offender? Needless to say, these all, in and of themselves, pose a danger to the road.

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