Special license plates put spotlight on drunken drivers

As states continue to look for effective ways to discourage drinking and driving, a few have turned to specially designed license plates that let police and other drivers know that the motorist is a DUI or DWI offender. An added punishment on top of the fines, jail time and increased auto insurance premiums offenders already face, these license plates have stirred up some controversy. Whether you're facing a DUI or DWI charge or want to be more diligent in watching out for motorists with a history of drinking and driving, it's a good idea to become familiar with these laws and programs.

Rundown on drunken driving plates
Depending on your state's laws, after a drunken driving conviction, you'll generally have your license plates confiscated and your driving privileges revoked. This is intended to keep drunken drivers off the road, and the length of the suspension varies by state. In some states, you might be able to get back behind the wheel before that time has elapsed -- if you agree to put a special license plate on your car.
In Minnesota, for example, plate impoundment occurs if the drunken driving conviction involved an "aggravating factor," like having another impaired driving conviction within the past 10 years, having a child in the vehicle or having a blood-alcohol level above 0.20, according to Minnesota's drunken driving laws. Ohio requires drunken drivers to complete a "hard time" suspension, after which they can return to the road with restricted plates, according to the Ohio Insurance Department.
How these special plates look varies by state. Ohio uses red letters and numbers on a yellow background, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Minnesota's "whiskey plates" all start with "W." Georgia, meanwhile, uses a special series of numbers and letters to identify their plates.
The length of time these license plates are required also varies. Minnesota's minimum plate impoundment term is one year past the next renewal. If you just renewed your plates, you may have to keep your whiskey plates on for nearly two years, according to Minnesota DWI defense firm Rosengren Kohlmeyer. And the offender can't simply borrow a family member's car -- every car he or she drives must be outfitted with the special plates.

The new "scarlet letter"?
Drunken driving license plate laws are known by critics as "scarlet letter" laws for their stigmatizing effect. Of course, as it relates to general public opinion, the stigmatizing effect is part of the laws' intent, as the shame is used as a deterrent for drunken drinking. But in terms of police enforcement of traffic laws and moving violations, these laws also raise a number of legal issues. Minnesota's law allows police to stop any vehicle baring the plates, even if no offense is being committed, according to Rosengren Kohlmeyer. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that this part of the law is unconstitutional and that police still need a reason to stop a vehicle.

License plate legislation
State laws requiring special plates for drunken drivers remain rare -- only Georgia, Minnesota and Ohio have them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Over the past decade, several other states have considered DUI or DWI license plate legislation; most of the bills have failed. Both Washington and South Dakota considered -- and failed to pass -- drunken driving license plate laws in 2011. Iowa, meanwhile, repealed its drunken driving license plate law in 1995, while a pilot program in Oregon ended in 1994.

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