ANNAPOLIS Convicted DWI offenders soon could be wearing their own sort of “scarlet letter” to mark their misdeeds, if a Maryland legislator has his way.
Delegate Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, submitted a bill requiring people convicted of alcohol- and drug-related driving offenses to have license plates branding them as drunken drivers.
“I think it’s a way of doing behavior modification,” he said. “We’ve tried everything in this state to get the people to be responsible, and none of it has worked. It’s an outward sign to other drivers to be forewarned about past behavior.”
But critics say that forcing a convicted DWI offender to use a special license plate reverts to old societal methods of using public disgrace to effect behavioral changes. They cite the story of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book “The Scarlet Letter,” in which the main character is forced to wear the letter “A” across her chest as punishment for committing adultery.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Suzanne Smith, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “What exactly would this do: terrify people to get off the roads?
“If the problem is really curbing drunk driving, (legislators) should take measures that will effectively prevent drunk driving,” she said. “I don’t think public humiliation is that measure.”
Embarrassment is the whole idea, Fulton said. It may be the only means to get repeat offenders off the roads when they are drunk.
“Not only will the drunk drivers be embarrassed, but their families will as well,” the delegate said. “I think this bill will keep drunk drivers out of cars and under public scrutiny.”
If the legislature approves the bill, convicted DWI offenders would have to pay for the new license plate. The Motor Vehicle Administration would determine its design, its price and the length of time it must be displayed. Fulton said he hopes the MVA would require the plates be used for a year after conviction, but he doesn’t expect them to approve the idea.
The MVA has not taken a position on the bill, said spokesman Richard Scher, but will meet Friday to review it.
Other states have attempted similar legislation, but none have passed it, according to Wendy Hamilton, with the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The Illinois legislature is looking at such a bill this year, and Ohio, Utah and Minnesota have pilot programs to determine if the license plates deter driving drunk.
In each case, the license plate has a zebra-print sticker on it that police can recognize while most drivers cannot, Hamilton said. MADD representatives are not supporting the legislation yet but are watching the effects of the pilot programs.
“We think it’s a very innovative approach,” she said. “It could have a deterrent effect, but it won’t be as significant as other things. All you can do is give it a try.”
This type of social mortification has the potential to create a series of problems for the convicted offenders, Smith said. The plates could harm family members, the recovery and employment of the drunken driver and the physical safety of anyone who uses the vehicle.
The bill assumes that only the convicted drunken driver uses the vehicle that will bear the special license plate. In most families, single use of a car is unlikely, she continued.
“This effectively brands everyone who uses that car as a drunk driver,” she said.
In addition, a convicted drunken driver involved in a recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous would lose his anonymity by being forced to drive a vehicle publicly stating his conviction, Smith said. An employer would then know of the conviction, jeopardizing the driver’s job.
Driving around with a drunken driver plate also could lead to deadlier problems, Smith said.
“It could get a car run off the road or get the driver assaulted by someone whose family member was killed by a drunk driver,” she said. “I think people should have to answer for their crimes, but I just hope it doesn’t get them killed.”
This is not the first time Fulton has sponsored such a bill. Last year’s version died in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.
Drunken driving issues have moved to the forefront in the legislature this year with legislation to drop the legal blood alcohol level from .1 to .08 and to increase penalties on second offenders. Fulton thinks this may be the perfect time to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor.
“The momentum is there,” he said. “I think this bill has a chance.”
Smith said she hopes society has progressed beyond such deterrent measures.
“Is public humiliation a good correction strategy? I tend not to prefer it,” she said. “These people are already paying the price for their crimes by being convicted of it. (The license plate) wouldn’t make me feel safer.”