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License Plate Tags for Drunk Drivers: A Wrong Turn?

Posted by Raymond Ejarque | Jul 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

Below is a story published on February 25, 2011, in the Wall Street Journal. For more information about this article, please visit:

Washington has become the latest state to see a push for a so-called whiskey-plate law to combat drunk driving, a move defense lawyers and civil libertarians say can unfairly stigmatize offenders, and sometimes their families as well.

The law would require first-time drunk drivers to replace their license plates with easy-to-spot tags that end with the uppercase letter “Z,” a signal to police to pay close attention to the car. Minnesota, an early adopter of such a law, uses the letter “W”—hence the term “whiskey plate”—on a plain white background.

Offenders in Washington would be required to display the special plates for three years after their driving privileges are restored. Republican Rep. Norma Smith of Clinton, Wash., who introduced the bill earlier this month, said it would give police another tool to crack down on a dangerous practice.

“The recidivist rate on drunk-driving is extremely high,” she said. “Too many people continue to die these needless deaths.”

The bill won't come to a vote for several months, but opponents are already making their voices heard.

Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said whiskey plates were part of a “trend of overcriminalization” in the U.S. “These sorts of laws just create obstacles to offenders getting fresh starts and moving forward with their lives,” she said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving Chief Executive Kimberly Earle said the organization supports whiskey-plate laws as a “useful tool” for police, but that MADD is more focused on measures it believes have a better track record for preventing drunk driving, such as requiring offenders to pass a car-mounted breathalizer to enable their engine to start.

A handful of other states have adopted similar laws. In Minnesota, certain drunk-driving offenders are required to attach special plates to their car for a year after their driving privileges are restored. An earlier version of the Minnesota law was enacted in 1988. Drunk-driving-related fatalities have fallen steadily since.

Jean Ryan, Minnesota's impaired-driving program coordinator, said that a host of factors were likely involved in that drop, including strengthened enforcement efforts.

Matt Langer, a captain with the Minnesota State Patrol, said that while he had arrested drivers whose cars had whiskey plates on new drunken-driving charges, it was also routine to drive past them, with “nothing to be concerned about.”

David Risk, a criminal lawyer in Minneapolis, said the law could have unwelcome ramifications. He said he had a client whose wife ran a day-care center that owned several vans, all of which were co-registered in his client's name. After his client's blood-alcohol test came back with a reading over the legal limit, Mr. Risk said, the Department of Public Safety told the day-care center it had to get whiskey plates for all its vans.

“You can imagine that didn't do wonders for business,” he said.

About the Author

Raymond Ejarque

Raymond Ejarque has practiced law since his admission to the Washington State Bar in June of 1994. He started his career in public interest law helping migrant farm workers and indigents in Texas and Washington State.  Later he worked in Criminal defense as a public defender in Seattle for many y...


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