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We Are the Marked Ones: Why Colored License Plates for Convicted DWIs Are a Bad Idea

A DWI punishment that has been around in some states for years is getting new attention as a way to deter drunk drivers. People looking to increase the penalties for DWIs are considering special, brightly-colored license plates for people who have been convicted of a DWI. At least two states, Ohio and Minnesota, already use these plates as a part of a person’s drunk driving punishment. The idea behind the plates is to shame the driver as a penalty and to make the cars of drunk drivers more easily visible to law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, these new license plates come with a host of issues, making them much more problematic than initially anticipated.

The Rationale Behind the Plates

There are two reasons that are commonly cited for why states impose these easily identifiable plates on people with drunk driving convictions. First, the plates are part of the person’s punishment. Shaming punishments have come more into vogue in the past decade, and courts are relying more and more on social pressure to control people who have been convicted of crimes. This is true despite the fact that many people believe shaming punishments to be overly-harsh or to leave the person with a lasting stigma in their community that they cannot shake off even after they have completed their punishment and wiped their slate clean.

The other reason for the plates is to allow law enforcement officers to more easily identify the cars of people convicted of DWIs. The idea is that the police should be extra vigilant with regard to people who have driven drunk before. Additionally, the plates are often only used during the period when the person who was convicted of the DWI has limited driving privileges, so it helps police stay aware of those restricted rights. However, this rationale is also a problem because it may lead to a violation of people’s civil rights. Police who see these plates are going to be more likely to pull those drivers over. This is an issue because police cannot stop someone for no reason. They need probable cause to stop a person, and a prior conviction is not probable cause.

The Problems that Arise

Beyond the dubious rationales for the colored plates, they present other problems. For instance, many families share a car. If one person in the family gets convicted of a DWI, the plates will go on the family car. This means that another, law-abiding family member will have to drive around with those plates and endure the judgmental stares of other commuters despite having committed no crime. Plus, the other family members would be subjected to the same increased scrutiny from police officers as the offender would be.

The plates may also influence the way that other people drive around the car. Seeing the plates could lead people to the assumption that the person driving the car presents a danger to them. They may be compelled to give the driver extra space or speed ahead to pass them. This added fear of the car with the colored plates can interfere with the ordinary flow of traffic and may itself present a danger to other people on the road.