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Modern Day Scarlet Letter - the Z Plate Idea
Written by John Brangwin
Thursday, 24 March 2011 17:38
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There’s currently a bill pending in Olympia to make drivers convicted of DUI get a special license for their car.  If passed, House Bill 1955 would require every person convicted of DUI to get a license plate marked with a Z, and it would be a crime for the person to drive any other vehicle.

While it might sound enticing to brand drivers this way, it’s nothing more than the “A” for adultery from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about Puritan Boston.  It would be a badge of shame for all to see.  But the truth is that such a law would do nothing to curb drunk driving.

First of all, most DUI convictions are for first time offenders who never offend again.  Those drivers wouldn’t have a “Z” before hand, and are unlikely to offend again with or without such a plate.  Some might argue that if first-time offenders knew they’d have to get a Z plate they’d be more likely to resist the temptation of getting a DUI.  Unfortunately, people don’t really do such “Hedonistic Calculus.”  Trust me, the penalties for DUI are plenty stiff now.  No one sits in a bar and thinks “Oh, getting a DUI is no big deal; the penalties aren’t that stiff; I’ll go ahead and drive.”  At least no one in their right mind.  First time offenders currently face mandatory jail, loss of license, an alcohol assessment, an ignition interlock requirement, high-risk insurance and thousands of dollars of costs.  Adding a Z plate to the list of unpleasant consequences won’t change anything. 


The truth is that the bill’s sponsor, Representative Norma Smith (R, Clinton, WA), really wants the plates so that Troopers and police keep a special watch on those drivers.  She said exactly that in interviews.  The problem with that of course is that police could still only legally stop drivers who actually commit a violation of the law or drive in a way that creates a reasonable suspicion they may be DUI.  Our State Constitution, as interpreted by our State Supreme Court, has always protected drivers’ rights and outlawed DUI road-blocks, profiling and pre-textual stops.  Representative Smith’s law may actually set repeat drunk-drivers free as courts may throw out traffic stops that were more based on the Z plate than solid police work.

A few other states already have such “Whiskey Plate” laws, but no study has shown the plates have any success in preventing or reducing drunk-driving.  Like many DUI laws, it may sound appealing but it’s ineffective.

Studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving is very similar to drunk-driving.  Maybe everyone who gets a ticket for that should have to get “CELL” on their license plate.  Or for those drivers who use their car as a fast-food restaurant, they should have to get the Golden Arches on their plate.  And for women who drive to work while putting on make-up, I think a pink bumper sticker of a pig wearing lip stick would be perfect.  I remember the 1985 “Baby on Board” fad; but I don’t think anyone drove any different because the driver in front of them had that yellow placard. 

The bottom line is that Z plates will not decrease drunk-driving and will only stigmatize people who made a one-time bad mistake in getting a DUI.  Perhaps Representative Smith should wear a scarlet D:  dumb-idea.


John Brangwin is a partner in the Wenatchee law firm of Woods & Brangwin, PLLC and concentrates on defending those accused of DUI and other crimes.  He is rated “superb” by Avvo, an attorney rating firm. 



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