New York Driver's License Suspension For Committing Just One Violation?!

Did you know that you can be suspended for just one violation of New York’s Vehicle And Traffic Law (“VTL”)?  That’s right, a traffic judge can suspend you for just one speeding ticket or other traffic offense.  While on their face, most moving violation statutes in New York do not mention punishment by suspension (rather most just speak of punishable by a fine and sometimes imprisonment), the VTL has another section which authorizes discretionary suspensions for just one violation.  This other statute is vague and broad, and can generally be invoked by a traffic judge to suspend as he or she deems appropriate.

VTL §510(3)(a) allows for a suspension of a driver’s license “for any violation of this chapter ***,  as shall in the discretion of the officer acting hereunder, justify such revocation or suspension” (emphasis added).

Appellate courts have relied upon VTL §510(3)(a) to uphold suspensions even though the language of the subject statues are silent as to suspension.  In Martin v Adduci, 138 A.D.2d 599, 526 N.Y.S.2d 181 (2d Dept 1988), the Second Department, relying on VTL §510 (3), sustained the imposition of a $100 fine and a 60-day suspension of a license for a speeding violation (VTL §1180[b]), even though a single violation of 1180(b) does not set forth a penalty of suspension.  Similarly, in Halstead v Adduci, 125 A.D.2d 846, 509 N.Y.S.2d 954 (3d Dept 1986),  citing VTL 510(3), the Third Department affirmed a license revocation for making an improper turn (VTL §1163) where the motorist improperly turned his vehicle and struck car parked on the side of the road.  Finally, in Draper v Passidomo, 122 A.D.2d 564, 505 N.Y.S.2d 21 (4th Dept 1986), the Fourth Department upheld a 45-day suspension where the judge found that a motorist was speeding in a construction zone where traffic was restricted to one lane of travel.

Surprisingly, suspensions have been imposed and upheld even though when motorist did not have too many DMV points, even when the charge carried 0 points and even when it was the motorist’s first and only offense.  For instance, in Ortenberg v Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, 191 A.D.2d 898, 595 N.Y.S.2d 127 (3d Dept 1993), a 45-day suspension was imposed by the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, where the driver violated VTL §1102 (a 2-point ticket) by failing to comply with the lawful direction of police officer.  See also Schlass v. Swarts, 2010 NY Slip Op 32074 (31-day suspension upheld for conviction at Manhattan North Traffic Violations Bureau to third 0-point cell phone ticket).

Some would argue “then why have a point system?”  Courts explain that the “point system” is not the exclusive method for traffic ticket convictions to lead to a suspension or revocation.  They add that the DMV ascribes points to assess the relative value of offenses, and to punish a license-holder for repetitive behavior which in and of itself is not considered serious enough to merit a license suspension (15 NYCRR §131.1). However, the “point system” does not limit the broad discretion of a traffic judge of administrative law judge (ALJ) under VTL § 510(3)(a).

We recently had two situations which led me to do the above research.  The first was a motorist with a 11-point speeding ticket (116/65) in Orange County.  We were ecstatic when we negotiated a reduction to a 6-point speeding ticket (86/65) and that the judge approved this plea bargain.  Our jubilance quickly dissipated when, without warning or an opportunity to be heard, the traffic judge asked our client for his license and, then, imposed a 6-month suspension.  Such suspension is fully authorized under the broad language of VTL 510(3).

The other case involved a 4-point speeding charge.  Our client was charged with speeding 46/30 on Utopia Parkway in Queens.  Tragically, he was cut off and to avoid striking the vehicle in front of him he veered to the right and struck and killed a pedestrian.  After a lengthy trial, the court found the motorist guilty and imposed a 5-month suspension. The ALJ explained that she did not revoke our client’s license because the speed was not excessively high and because his actions were precipitated by the other vehicle that cut in front of him.

While not clients, I have been in court when a motorist convicted of multiple un-licensed convictions (a 0-point ticket) was suspended, and when a motorist with multiple adult seat belt charges was suspended (also a 0-point ticket).

More bad news.  A motorist who is suspended under VTL 510(3)(a) is NOT eligible for a restricted use license.  Further, if the motorist appeals, because it is discretionary, a VTL 510(3)(a) suspension will only be overturned if the motorist can show that the lower court “abused its discretion”.  This is a heavy burden for the motorist, one that he or she likely in most instances will not be able to meet.

Fortunately, most traffic judges and ALJs will only invoke VTL 510(3)(a) in extreme circumstances.  Yet, nevertheless, it is scary to know that the New York Legislature would authorize such broad and vague powers.  In my opinion, this law could be re-written to set forth the specific circumstances when it can be invoked (ex. fatality, plea deals that reduce 11-point speeding charges, etc.) rather than its current open-ended format.  In fact, another section, VTL 510(3)(d), already exists and authorizes suspensions and revocation for motorists who are “habitual and persistent violators of the traffic laws” so why not re-write 510(3) with similarly clearer parameters?

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