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Jan 11, 4:59 PM EST

PennDOT sued for suspending licenses after drug convictions



HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Two Philadelphia men have sued Pennsylvania's governor and Transportation Department officials to challenge a state law that suspends driver's licenses for even minor drug convictions.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Philadelphia seeks to stop the state from suspending licenses for drug offenses that are unrelated to traffic safety.

The plaintiffs say the suspensions violate constitutional protections and play havoc with the lives of criminal defendants, making it harder for them to stay employed, keep medical appointments or care for family members.

"License suspension for former drug offenders creates a vicious cycle: a conviction automatically results in license suspension, which creates barriers to employment and probation compliance, which puts individuals at risk of incarceration and/or continued entanglement with the criminal justice system," the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs are Russell Harold Jr. and Sean Williams, who had their licenses suspended for marijuana possession convictions. Harold, 52, said he has had difficulty maintaining a home cleaning business because he can't legally drive until late next year. Williams, 25, has been taking public transportation daily for eight months to a hospital to visit his son, born prematurely in April.

"Because (the) defendants suspend licenses for offenses completely unrelated to traffic safety, their punitive scheme targets safe drivers like Mr. Williams - who has never been cited for a traffic-related offense of any kind - without improving road safety in any way," the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, says some 150,000 Pennsylvanians have temporarily lost their licenses because of drug convictions since 2011. The plaintiffs believe thousands of Pennsylvanians currently have such suspensions, some for convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

By linking suspensions to convictions, they argued, the law "captures impoverished persons and racial minorities at a disproportionate rate."

It alleges violations of constitutional rights of due process and equal protection and seeks an injunction against the law and the restoration of the plaintiffs' licenses.

Lawyers for Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C., civil rights advocacy organization that helped file the lawsuit, said 38 other states have opted to repeal or scale back similar laws.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf didn't comment on the lawsuit but notes Wolf supports a pending proposal in the Legislature to overturn the automatic suspension law .

Along with Wolf, the other defendants are Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards and two of her deputy secretaries, Leo Bagley and Kurt Myers.

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