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License Plate Impoundment for Multiple Offender Drunk Drivers

H. Laurence Ross, Steven Simon, and James Cleary

Department of Sociology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA

This work was supported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.


The American state of Minnesota administratively cancels the registration and confiscates the plates of vehicles owned by repeat offender drunk drivers. Samples of repeat offenders were interviewed both in Minnesota and in Iowa, chosen for comparison because its law also provides for plate confiscation, though judicially rather than administratively, and where the vehicle registration systems differs. Representative samples of the official records of both drunk drivers and routine offenders were analyzed. Independent evidence finds that plate confiscation is capable of reducing future impaired driving by multiple offenders but this research shows that the procedure is easily evaded. Moreover, in Minnesota, police do not fully implement the procedure, and in Iowa confiscation is virtually never effected. The causes of these failures are explored and procedural improvements are recommended.


Development of effective policy for dealing with multiple offender drunk drivers (DUIs) is a vexing problem. Repeat offenders demonstrate by their continuing recidivist behavior that they are unresponsive to standard policy based mainly on punishment, education, and therapy. They ignore driver license sanctions and continue to drive. Recently, policy has been developed based on separating these offenders from their vehicles. Among the programs that have been tried are impounding or confiscating vehicles used in DUI offenses; incapacitating the vehicles on the offender's property; stickering or impounding the vehicle license plates, rendering driving of that vehicle illegal (and obvious to law enforcement); and installing breath-alcohol ignition devices on vehicles owned by these offenders. This report inquires into one such program: canceling registrations and impounding the license plates of vehicles driven by or owned by certain multiple offenders, as implemented in the American state of Minnesota.

Minnesota law provides for plate impoundment and registration cancellation when an individual's driving license or privilege has been revoked because of DUI convictions or administrative actions for a third time in five years or a fourth time in 15 years. The Minnesota license plate impoundment law as of 1991 requires impoundment in a qualifying case to be administered by a police officer making a DUI arrest and initiating an administrative driver license revocation. (The plates from the vehicle used in the triggering violation are to be impounded regardless of ownership; the law authorizes new plates for non-offender owners.) In the event of a failure of the police officer to apply the impoundment law, registration cancellation and plate impoundment may also be ordered by mail by the motor vehicles department when they receive notice from the police of the administrative driver license revocation in a qualifying case.

This study is based on interviews with police and other officials concerned with DUI in Minnesota and in Iowa, which can statutorily revoke plates and registrations after a DUI conviction, but seldom does so. Multiple-offender DUIs were interviewed, and DUI files in both states were analyzed.

State motor vehicle data show that prior to 1991, when the law changed to allow plate impoundment by police, there was very little use of plate impoundment in Minnesota. From 1988 to 1991, judges were "required" to issue impoundment orders, but they did not often comply. During that time period there were an average of 19 impoundment orders per month, whereas in the first 9 months of 1991, when the law placed primary responsibility on the police, there were an average of 219 per month. However, this represents only about a third of the individuals who were qualified to receive plate impoundment orders. In an additional third of the eligible cases, the registration cancellation and plate impoundment were ordered by the motor vehicles department on receipt of notice of administrative driver license revocations from the police. The mailed notice applied to vehicles owned by the offender but not driven at the time of the incident, as well as those used in the incident when the police failed to order impoundment. The owners were instructed to surrender their license plates, but there is no legal provision for punishing those who do not comply. In a final third of the cases, no action was taken against the qualifying offenders, because the officer did not take the plate at the time of the arrest, no vehicle information was provided for the motor vehicles department to issue the order later, and the offender had no vehicles in his name (and was driving a vehicle registered to someone else at the time of his apprehension).

Our interviews with police in Minnesota suggested two main reasons for the low rate of officer-initiated impoundment. The first may be the difficulty that officers in the field have determining whether the arrestee was in fact qualified for the action. In examining the driver license records, which may be available on a patrol car computer or only at the dispatching station, the officer must identify alcohol-related license actions over the previous five years, and then determine that they were not subsequently rescinded.

The second reason why police may not issue impoundment orders is failure to understand or to support the law. In particular, the police may neither know nor sympathize with the fact that the plate of a vehicle used in the incident but owned by another party is subject to impoundment.

We believe that police-initiated impoundment could be increased by two measures. First, law enforcement personnel should be trained in the rationale and methods of the law. This has not been systematically done. Second, determining whether the offender qualifies for plate impoundment should be done by a computer program, easily initiated by the field officer, rather than requiring the officer to make the calculation.

Inasmuch as 32 percent of the DUI cases we examined in Minnesota involved people driving cars registered to someone else (a larger number than we found in Iowa), we inquired into whether this represented repeat offenders attempting to avoid plate impoundment. Inspection of the records of a control group of non-DUI offenders in Minnesota found approximately 33 percent of this group were also driving cars registered to someone else. That there was no significant difference between the groups in driving vehicles registered to others suggests that the reasons for non-owner driving have to do mainly with tax and insurance consequences of vehicle ownership by a repeat DUI, and not the plate impoundment law. DUI offenders also tend to own older, low-value, cars, but again we see this as the product of low incomes rather than as attempts to avoid plate impoundment.

A jurisdiction adopting plate impoundment for repeat DUI offenders must evaluate the limitations on effectiveness related to its vehicle registration system as well as locally common practices for avoiding registration requirements. In particular, it seems possible to us that jurisdictions with a plate-to-owner registration system may lead to less successful avoidance of the penalties than where the system assigns the plate to a vehicle. More research is needed on this topic.

A final question that must be raised about registration cancellation and plate impoundment for repeat offender DUIs is whether the game is worth the candle -- does it work to reduce DUI recidivism? Although we were prepared to inquire into this question, we found that Allan Rodgers had addressed it an article published in 1994 in Alcohol, Drugs, and Driving. Rodgers examined the driving records of all individuals eligible for plate impoundment from 1988 to 1991, the period when impoundment was judicially ordered, and post 1991, when primary responsibility for impoundment was given to the police. Calculating survival functions for all Minnesota drivers with three, and with four or more, DUI violations on record, he found that those receiving an impoundment order from a judge, before 1991, were only slightly less likely to repeat their offense than those who received no impoundment. On the other hand, third-time repeat offenders receiving impoundment orders from the police after 1991 had significant reductions in their recidivism. Fourth and greater number offenders showed no significant differences between those with plates impounded by police and those receiving mailed notices. In brief, though no silver bullet, plate impoundment "works" to reduce recidivism among multiple offender DUIs, at what must be presumed to be a very modest cost.

We believe that license plate impoundment is a control measure that can have a significant effect in reducing future DUI by a population known to be very difficult to control by standard policies. We emphasize that this is true only where the law is applied administratively and at the time of the incident. We believe furthermore that the efficiency and effectiveness of the program can be increased with police training and with some very inexpensive modifications of the central driver history computer program.