“Scarlet Letter” Plates Becoming Popular DUI Punishment in Some States

Imagine that you have been convicted of a DUI. You serve a short jail sentence, pay a large fine, and your license is suspended. You have paid for your mistake and you are ready to move on with your life. But wait-you are now told that you must put a special license plate on your vehicle indicating to the world that you have been convicted of a DUI. For drivers in Minnesota, Ohio, and a growing number of states, this form of public-shaming is part of the harsh reality of a DUI conviction.

In Minnesota, certain drunk-driving offenders are required to attach special plates to their vehicles for a year after their driving privileges are restored. The plates begin with the letter “W” (inspiring the term “whiskey plates,” as they are commonly called) and are printed on a plain white background. A similar law is found in Ohio, where those convicted of a DUI may be required to have a special yellow license plate. The laws were supposedly put into place to signal to law enforcement to pay close attention to the vehicle.

Although no such laws exist in Tennessee, some civil liberties advocates worry that “whiskey plates,” like the ones in Minnesota, may become an increasingly popular option for lawmakers seeking to appear tough on drunk drivers. Iowa and Oregon have recently jumped on the bandwagon, and Washington is among the states that have lately considered adopting such a policy.

While advocates of the plates say the policy will help deter people from drinking and driving, many people see the plates as a form of over-zealous punishment. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said whiskey plates are a part of a “trend of over-criminalization” in the U.S. She maintains that laws like the ones in Minnesota, Ohio, and now Iowa and Oregon “create obstacles to offenders getting fresh starts and moving forward with their lives.” Furthermore, critics of whiskey plates believe that they have the potential to invite unwarranted harassment from the police.

A DUI conviction in the U.S. can have very serious consequences for individuals and their families. Under these “scarlet letter” DUI laws, the repercussions of a conviction can be even more long-term. While Tennessee has not adopted such a law, the policy has the potential to reach more and more states as the trend rises in popularity.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Some Call Tags for Drunk Drivers Wrong Turn, Ashby Jones, February 25, 2011.

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