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Although these have not been adopted in California, more and more states are introducing “whiskey plates” for drivers who have been convicted of DUI or multiple DUI offenses. The plates serve as a “scarlet letter” that alerts the public that the driver has prior DUI convictions on his or her record. While California has yet to require DUI drivers to equip special license plates, this could become an issue in the future.
So far, only Ohio, Minnesota and Washington have required certain drivers to equip their vehicles with so-called “whiskey plates.” In Ohio, DUI offender license plates are differentiated with red lettering. In Minnesota, these plates feature a prominent “W” and in Washington the specially marked plates feature a large letter “Z.”
These plates are required for drivers who have multiple DUI convictions on their record. The plates are intended to have a shaming effect on the driver. The theory is that no driver would want to be marked as a chronic impaired driver and would subsequently learn their lesson.
These plates also may have the unintended effect of attracting extra attention from law enforcement officers who observe someone driving with these plates. Officers may be more likely to pull over a vehicle with whiskey plates that they see commit minor traffic infractions or that is observed driving at night or on the weekends. This may create a constitutional issue, as law enforcement officers may be more likely to pull over drivers with whiskey plates even if there is insufficient probable cause.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitutions, officers cannot simply stop any vehicle at whim. Instead, they must have reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing an unlawful act. This is usually a traffic violation, such as speeding, an illegal lane change or an equipment violation.
If a driver is seen with whiskey plates, or some other indication that he or she has prior alcohol related driving convictions, officers may be tempted to conduct vehicle stops without the requisite probable cause. This could also lead to increased incidents of harassment as drivers with these plates may find themselves being pulled over constantly. This type of harassment could potentially lead to a civil rights lawsuit.
Some states will identify chronic impaired drivers with other methods. In addition to “whiskey plates,” some states require drivers who have multiple DUI convictions to carry specially-marked driver’s licenses. This does not carry the same stigma as a “whiskey plate,” however it would alert anyone checking the license that the individual has prior DUI convictions.
In California, while a driver would not have to have a special license plate installed, he or she would face a driver’s license suspension for a DUI offense. If convicted of driving under the influence, drivers in Los Angeles County would have to have an Ignition Interlock Device (“IID”) installed into their vehicle that would prevent the vehicle from being started or driven if the driver has any measurable amount of alcohol in their system.