In the U.S., a driving license is a prerequisite to the privilege of driving a motor vehicle on the highways. The state has the police power to promulgate regulations calculated to promote safety in the use of highways. Driving a motor vehicle on a public highway is a privilege and not an unrestrained natural right[i].
All states have power to regulate licensing of drivers in the interests of public safety. Regulations that are formulated within the state’s police power will be presumed reasonable absent a clear showing to the contrary[ii]. Such statutes are designed to promote safe driving and to protect the traveling public. The owner of such a license exercises the privilege granted by it subject to reasonable regulations in the use of the highways common to all citizens[iii].
Granting a license does not confer upon a state a liability. A public entity is immune from liability for discretionary acts which are within the course and scope of their lawful powers and duties. The licensing of a motor vehicle operator by the City does not render it a guarantor of competence, for it obviously can do no more than test a person’s minimal competence to drive a motor vehicle. However, the agency issuing a license must examine the competence of an applicant before issuing such a license.
Requirements for obtaining a driving license are different in different states. In the state of Mississippi, Miss. Code Ann. § 5596 provides in part that no person can drive or operate motor vehicles for hire in any city or town in the state unless s/he obtains a license. The desiring person must make application to the mayor of such municipality in writing, accompanied by a statement of some reputable citizen thereof, that the applicant is over the age of eighteen years, an experienced driver, of good moral character and physically and mentally capacitated to drive and operate such motor vehicle. The mayor places such application before the board of aldermen, or other governing authorities, whereupon inquiry is made by such governing authorities into the moral character, mental and physical fitness of the applicant. If capable, the applicant receives a certificate of such permit, signed by the mayor, together with a metallic badge, which shall have a number thereon, with the name of the municipality. It must be worn by such person so that the same will be displayed while engaged in or about such occupation[iv].
Generally, statutes and ordinances regulating the granting of drivers’ licenses in particular jurisdictions contain provisions for their suspension or revocation. For example, the Ohio General Assembly has authority to establish conditions upon which licenses to operate motor vehicles are issued in the state. Further, the General Assembly can establish procedures and regulations suspending or revoking this statutorily granted privilege when the interest of public safety or welfare is at stake. In the state of North Carolina, the State Department of Motor Vehicles has exclusive authority to issue, suspend and revoke, under conditions prescribed by the general assembly, licenses to operate motor vehicles on the public roads[v].
A person operating a motor vehicle upon any way is deemed to have consented to submit to a chemical test or analysis of his/her breath or blood in the event that he is arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. The Failure to submit to such tests will amount to the suspension of their driving license[vi].
License revocation is akin to a restraining order or injunction. Its purpose is to protect the public from future harm by depriving the unsafe or irresponsible driver of his/her authority to continue to operate a motor vehicle. Because its main purpose is public safety rather than punishment, the revocation of a driver’s license is properly characterized as non punitive.
A person whose driving license, or driving privilege have been cancelled, suspended, or revoked and who drives any motor vehicle upon the highways, streets or public roads of the state, while such license or privilege is canceled, suspended or revoked, is guilty of a misdemeanor[vii].
[i] Miami v. Aronovitz, 114 So. 2d 784, 786 (Fla. 1959).
[ii] Billings v. Skurdal, 224 Mont. 84 (Mont. 1986).
[iii] Thornhill v. Kirkman, 62 So. 2d 740 (Fla. 1953).
[iv] Allen v. Kosciusko, 207 Miss. 343, 348 (Miss. 1949).
[v] State v. Green, 251 N.C. 141 (N.C. 1959).
[vi] ALM GL ch. 90, § 24.
[vii] Miss. Code Ann. § 63-11-40.