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The Ethics of “Whiskey Plates”

Privacy Rights vs. the Good of Society

One of the benefits of teaching ethics is I often have discussions with my students about issues that I would not otherwise think of. One such case relates to a paper submitted by my one of my students, Sarah Boudaghians. The paper deals with the ethics of “Whiskey Plates”. I start with some of Sarah’s thoughts and then add my own later on.

About one-third of all drivers convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol are repeat offenders. The statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that driving under the influence of alcohol has been a problem for repeat offenders in the U.S. for years. As a way to deter these arrests, various states have begun trying to enact legislation to require a special license plate after an offender’s driving privileges are restored. The plates have been coined “Whiskey plates” or “Party Plates” but others are calling them a scarlet letter.

Ohio was the first state to use the “Whiskey Plates”. The plates are required for one year from the date of offense or until the violator's driver's license is fully reinstated, whichever is longer. Judges have had the discretion to use the “Whiskey Plates” since 1967 but judges rarely utilized the plates. However, in 2004 the plates became a mandated punishment by state law to all DUI offenders.

Some other states that currently require these plates are Minnesota and Georgia, though the duration of usage is different for each state. Minnesota, an early adopter of such a law, uses the letter "W"—hence the term "whiskey plate"—on a plain white background.

The idea behind the plates comes from the idea behind the Scarlet Letter. The goal is to embarrass the offender enough so that the plates will be a deterrent for those thinking of driving under the influence. Supporters of these laws claim they can help law enforcement be on the lookout for potential repeat offenders as well as providing other drivers on the road notice of a potential hazard.

As with most emotionally-charged issues there are many points of view. Extremists believe people who drink and drive should not be able to drive at all, for a certain probationary period, after they have been arrested. Sympathizers believe these plates bring an unfair stigma to those who are attempting to make up for their past actions. One of the important aspects of this problem is there is no proof that these plates are preventing repeat offenders from getting behind the wheel.

There are alternatives to requiring people who have served their time to have a license plate that somehow indicates they have been convicted of a DUI offense. One alternative is interlock devices. An ignition interlock device is an in-car Breathalyzer. The driver blows into a device the size of a mobile phone and if a measurable amount of alcohol is detected, the car won't start.  The Center for Disease Control concluded that the ignition interlock devices reduce re-arrest rates by 67%. Not only do the devices prevent re-arrests, they also prevent deaths. New Mexico's 6-year-old law requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunken drivers, including first-time offenders, is credited with a 35% reduction in drunken-driving deaths. Arizona, with a similar law, has reduced drunken-driver deaths by 46% since 2007.

Some offenders have complained that the whiskey plates affect their ability to get and keep a job. In one situation a man Lester Compton called the plates “embarrassing” and said at best he has been jeered, at worst he has lost a couple of jobs in his independent contracting business.

Another example of family members being embarrassed was the story of a man who received the whiskey plates and was required to put those plates on all of his family’s vehicles. This particular family ran a daycare center with five vans for picking up children. As you might imagine, the parents of the children at the daycare were upset.

The ethical issue here is the privacy rights of an individual versus the good of society. According to our laws, once a person has served the crime for which he or she is committed they are supposed to be given an opportunity to make something of themselves and live a “normal” life.

There are exceptions such as the Sex Offender Registry” website of the FBI and various states that require those convicted of certain sex offenses and/or crimes against children to register as a Sex Offender. It’s out there for all to see and in all likelihood their lives will never be the same. We tend to sanction the invasion of privacy rights in this case because of the most heinous of crimes committed against those who can’t stand up for themselves. We believe society benefits when all in a community are aware that a past sexual offender is in their midst.

Should we apply this logic to DUIs? After all, they may have seriously injured or killed someone in the commission of their crime. If I were a parent of one of those affected, then I’d probably support the whiskey plates. I imagine it would have the whole-hearted support of Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD).

On the other hand, people, especially young people, often act impulsively – get into a car and drive while under the influence. In that case does the punishment (whiskey plates) fit the crime or is it over the top?

This is not an easy question to answer because of the understandably high emotions that run ramped on both sides. My concern is where does it stop?  Why not require rapists to have special license plates? After all they have committed what might be considered the second most heinous crime on another person.

It’s an ethical slippery slope once you start requiring one group of offenders to have special plates. In this case I think the rights of the individual outweigh whatever good there is to society of having whiskey plates especially since alternative measures can be taken.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 12, 2012