So it probably took no great vision a few years back when legislators
and judges began punishing all kinds of youthful wrongdoing by pulling
teens' driver's licenses--even when the offenses are not committed
while driving. Skip school, lose your license. Get caught at a party
with booze, lose your license. Smoke pot, forget it.
Thus it was inevitable that teens' driver's licenses would become the
latest legal weapons in the tobacco wars.
About a half-dozen states recently have enacted laws that can yank
licenses from youths caught smoking or possessing tobacco products.
Judges in Florida and Utah have gone one step further and set up
special courts that attempt to blend the threat of the ultimate
punishment with education on the dangers of tobacco use.
"It hits them where it hurts," says Broward County, Fla., Judge Steven
G. Shutter, who has presided over the nation's first teen tobacco
court for just over a year. "When I was a teenager I wanted two things
more than anything: a car and girls. I didn't get the girls until much
later, but at 17 I did get to drive a car."
Not all states are hopping on the tobacco bandwagon, however.
Legislators in Illinois and Georgia this year shelved legislation that
would have suspended teens' licenses for using tobacco. Opponents
claimed the proposals made criminals out of kids when the real targets
should be retailers who sell tobacco products.
In Florida and Utah, however, tobacco offenses are civil infractions,
like traffic tickets. Shutter's Broward County court operates under a
1997 state law that, for a first offense, fines youths $25 or imposes
16 hours of community service, and mandates attendance at an
anti-tobacco class. The statute suspends teens' licenses for 30 to 45
days when they commit a third offense within 12 weeks, fail to appear
in court or ignore the penalties.
Of the approximately 1,200 teens cited since March 1998, Shutter says
he sent license suspension warnings to about 100, nearly all for
failure to appear. After that, most youths showed up in court,
avoiding a license suspension.
In Salt Lake City, state District Judge Joseph Anderson relies on the
court's inherent powers to take licenses and to order a combination of
fines, attendance at anti-tobacco classes and community service.
Anderson has suspended less than 10 licenses since the pilot tobacco
court convened in August last year, driving home the point to the few
who don't take it seriously.
The first offense in Utah costs the defendant $50, while multiple
offenses can incur a hefty fine of $250.
"Most of the kids so far are paying the tickets," Anderson says. "That
will probably change as they increase."
Both judges say no teen has showed up in court with a lawyer and
challenged their authority, although one Florida girl was acquitted
after she came in with a lawyer and witnesses and demanded a trial.
But if alcohol and drug possession cases are any indication, most
challenges to tobacco-related license suspensions would go up in
Courts overwhelmingly have affirmed suspensions in alcohol and drug
cases, usually holding that driving is a privilege and not a right and
that suspensions are rationally related to the state's goal of highway
Moreover, there is nothing stopping a state from refusing to issue a
license to someone under 18 in the first place. And more and more
states are increasing restrictions on teen drivers, enacting laws that
may keep them off the roads after curfew or make it more difficult to
obtain a license.
Going even further than courts have in drug and alcohol cases, the
West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a law that made it possible to take
licenses from high school dropouts. Reaching for a link to the
punishment, the court asserted that a dropout is more likely than
other kids to be "out and about making mischief with his or her car."
Means v. Sidiropolis, 401 S.E.2d 447 (1990).
The Wyoming Supreme Court is the notable stray from the pack. The
court in 1992 used equal protection and cruel and unusual punishment
provisions in the state constitution to strike down a statute that
took licenses from drivers under 19 who were cited for alcohol
offenses, but not from drivers between 19 and 21, the state's legal
drinking age. Johnson v. State, 838 P.2d 158.
But most smoking teenagers don't live in Wyoming. So the bottom line
probably will be simple if teenagers challenge license suspensions for
tobacco offenses. They will lose. End of story.
Whether tobacco courts reduce teen smoking, however, will be another
story. Already, Shutter says, he is beginning to recognize repeat
offenders. He should get a better idea of the court's effectiveness
after the clerk's office installs a computer case-tracking system.
Also, a follow-up survey of teens who have gone through the court was
expected in July.
For now, Shutter can only read the kids' faces when they come to
tobacco court on the last Friday of each month. When he starts his
standard spiel on the law, the teens look bored. Then he gets to the
part about license suspensions. "That perks them up a bit," Shutter
But more impressive is Earl C. Mogk of nearby Dania, a cancer survivor
who had his larynx and vocal cords removed. Mogk speaks to the kids
about his experience with an artificial voice box.
"He's a punch in the stomach," Shutter says.