License Plate Impoundment

In recent years many States have implemented sanctions affecting a DWI offender’s license plate or vehicle. These sanctions are intended to prevent the offender from driving the vehicle while the sanctions are in effect, and also to deter impaired driving by the general public. . . . License plate impoundment [allows an officer to] seize and impound or destroy the license plate [of a DWI offender’s vehicle]. (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-34)

The impoundment period varies by state, with many states imposing a 90-day penalty (Voas, 2008). Impoundment periods are sometimes equivalent to the duration of license suspension for a DWI offense.

[NHTSA, 2008h] and [Voas, Fell, et al., 2004] give an overview of vehicle and license plate sanctions and are the basic references for the information provided below. See also Brunson and Knighten (2005), Practice #4, and [Neuman et al., 2003], Strategies B1, B2, and C1. (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-34)


Since the early 1980s, convicted DWI offenders have been subject to administrative license revocation (ALR) laws that suspend the offender’s driving privileges for a period of time. However, offenders may continue to endanger others by driving illegally, an offense known as driving while suspended (DWS). Vehicle and plate sanctions evolved as a way to deter offenders from committing further DWS and DWI violations (Voas and DeYoung, 2002).


As of 2004, 16 states were impounding license plates (McKnight et al., 2008). More-recent updates were not available.


“In Minnesota, license plate impoundment was shown to reduce recidivism when administered by the arresting officer ([A. Rodgers, 1995])” (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-34). Rodgers used survival analysis and found that third-time DWI violators with impounded plates had significantly fewer DWI convictions after two years than similar offenders whose plates were not impounded.

Another study in Minnesota reviewed administrative data and interviewed police officers and repeat offenders (Ross, Simon, and Cleary, 1996). Although this study did not examine the effectiveness of the sanction on recidivism, the researchers reported several findings relevant to understanding license impoundment legislation. For example, switching to police-based procedures for license confiscation from court-based procedures increased the number of confiscations more than ten-fold. However, the reach of the law was limited because offenders’ impoundment orders could be lost during the many steps in the procedure (an order is issued, later reviewed in an administrative office, and then a notification is sent by mail to the offender). In addition, an offender may also adopt coping behaviors to avoid DWS penalties, such as registering a car in another person’s name.

When “plate impoundment does not involve the courts, it occurs quickly, consistently, and efficiently ([Neuman et al., 2003], Strategy B2; [NHTSA, 2008h]; [NTSB, 2000])” (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-34).

Recent Research on Effectiveness

Leaf and Preusser, 2011, examined the effect that Minnesota’s license plate impoundment had on first-offense drivers whose BACs were between 0.20 and 0.22. Both DWI recidivism and DWS violations were lower for the plate impoundment group than for a similar group (first-offense drivers with BACs of 0.17 to 0.19) at all points in time, ranging from 30 days to one year. Using administrative data from previous years, they also determined that drivers whose license plates were not impounded under lax enforcement of the policy were 2.5 times as likely as drivers whose plates were impounded to reoffend in the next month; this effect lessened over time, although some effects persisted for up to three years.



Measuring Effectiveness

The effectiveness of license plate impoundment programs is generally measured in terms of recidivism expressed as the percentage of offenders who have alcohol-related traffic violations after being sanctioned. Another common measure is the percentage of offenders driving while suspended.

Time to Implement

“All vehicle and license plate sanctions require at least several months to implement” (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-34).

Other Issues

To Whom License Plate Sanctions Are Applied

License plate impoundment varies by state, but most sanctions “have been applied to repeat [DWI] offenders” or those with DWS convictions following a DWI offense (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-35). “[S]ome States also apply vehicle sanctions to high-BAC first offenders (e.g., a BAC of .15 or higher)” or first offenders but with a shorter penalty period (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-35). “If someone other than the offender owns the vehicle, the vehicle owner should be required to sign an affidavit stating they will not allow the offender to drive the vehicle while the suspension is in effect ([NHTSA, 2008h])” (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-35). In Ohio and Minnesota, offenders can apply for “family plates,” which allow nonoffending family members to operate the vehicle and police officers to stop and check the vehicle for proper licensure (Voas and DeYoung, 2002).

Administrative Issues

“All license plate and vehicle sanctions require an administrative structure to process the license plates or vehicles. Laws should permit officers to impound license plates at the time of arrest so offenders do not have the opportunity to transfer vehicle ownership ([NHTSA, 2008h])” (UNC Highway Safety Research Center, 2011, p. 1-35).

Table B.6. State Laws on License Plate Impoundment, as of December 2004
State License Plate Impoundment
Ala. No
Alaska No
Ariz. No
Ark. Arkansas has a license plate impoundment and confiscation law. License plates are impounded for 90 days for a DWS conviction, and the plates are revoked if the offender has a prior DWI conviction. At the discretion of the court, a temporary license plate may be issued if it is in the best interest of the offender’s dependents.
Calif. No
Colo. No
Conn. No
D.C. No
Del. Delaware has a license plate confiscation law for a first-time DWI offense (90 days) and subsequent DWI offenses (one year). This law applies if the vehicle operator is driving while suspended or revoked for a DWI offense or for an implied-consent refusal of a chemical test or other situations that require mandatory license revocation.
Fla. No
Ga. Georgia has a license plate confiscation law. Under the habitual-traffic-offender law, an offender who commits a second or subsequent DWI offense (within five years) may have the license plates of all the vehicles he or she owns confiscated by the courts.
Hawaii Hawaii has vehicle-registration revocation and license plate–suspension laws. The registration of all vehicles owned by an offender must be revoked for the same period as his or her license for a second or subsequent DWI offense or for refusing to submit to a chemical breath test under the implied-consent law. Special registrations with special license plates may be issued in hardship situations for household members or co-owners.
Idaho No
Ill. Illinois has a license plate–confiscation law. If an offender is convicted of a fourth DWI offense, the offender’s vehicle is subject to license plate seizure. Driving while suspended for a DWI also can result in license plate confiscation.
Ind. No
Iowa Iowa has vehicle impoundment and immobilization laws. For a second or subsequent DWI offense, the vehicle owned and used by the offender can be impounded or immobilized and the license plate seized (and registration confiscated if the vehicle is in custody) by law enforcement authorities. New registration plates are issued only at the end of the driver’s license–revocation period or 180 days, whichever is longer. A vehicle also is subject to license plate impoundment if the vehicle was driven by the offender while still under suspension for a prior DWI offense. Another law prohibits second and subsequent DWI offenders from buying, selling, or transferring vehicles. If there is a hardship to a family member, then this action may be replaced by having an ignition interlock installed on the vehicle.
Kan. Kansas has a license plate–revocation law under which, on a fourth or subsequent DWI offense, the license plates of the vehicle used in the offense may be revoked for one year.
Ky. Kentucky has a license plate–confiscation law. For second or subsequent DWI offenses, the court must either order the use of ignition interlocks on all vehicles owned by the offender or impound the license plates of all vehicles owned by the offender for a period not to exceed the license action. A hardship exemption is available to allow family members to use the vehicles.
La. No
Maine State officials are given broad authority for any cause considered sufficient to suspend a vehicle owner’s registration or certificate of title. For a second or subsequent DWI offense, the offender’s vehicle registration and license plates must be suspended for the same length of time as the license is suspended. Hardship exemptions may be made for a family member concerning the use of the vehicle.
Md. Maryland also has vehicle impoundment– and license plate–suspension laws. In addition to suspending the vehicle’s registration, authorities can impound or immobilize the vehicle by suspending license plates for not more than 180 days if the driver’s license is currently suspended for a prior alcohol offense.
State License Plate Impoundment
Mass. The state has a law concerning license plate and registration revocation (Chapter 90, Section 23, in statute). An offender who drives while revoked is considered an immediate threat; therefore, the police will seize the license plate and notify the registry. If an offender is caught driving while revoked but the vehicle is registered to someone else, the owner must come in for a hearing. The registrar may suspend the owner’s registration (but not seize the plates) if it appears that the owner knew the vehicle was being driven by someone with a suspended license. A more general law (Chapter 90, Section 22A) states that the registrar can revoke the license and registration of a driver who is believed to be a threat to safety.
Mich. For a first or second offense, the registration and license plates of the vehicle involved in the offense shall be cancelled. For a third or subsequent offense or for a fourth or subsequent offense with a DWS conviction, the offender shall be denied the right to register, purchase, or lease a vehicle.
Minn. Minnesota’s license plate–impoundment law requires that a vehicle’s tags be impounded if the offender, within the previous ten years, (1) has been convicted of a DWI or has had a license suspended for a prior DWI and has a BAC of 0.10 or greater, (2) has a BAC of 0.20 or greater, or (3) has been convicted of any DWI or implied-consent offense while transporting a child younger than 16 and at least 36 months younger than the offender.
Miss. No
Mo. No
Mont. No
Neb. Nebraska’s vehicle-immobilization law will be considered to be a license plate–suspension or –confiscation and vehicle registration–suspension law. For a second or subsequent DWI or an implied-consent refusal offense within 12 years, all vehicles owned by the offender must be electronically immobilized for not less than five days and not longer than eight months. A co-owner may have the vehicle released if there is a hardship.
Nev. No
N.H. No
N.J. No
N.M. No
N.Y. No
N.C. No
N.D. North Dakota has a license plate–impoundment law. Following conviction for DWI, an offender may have his or her license plate impounded for the same length of time as the license suspension. License plates also may be impounded for driving while suspended because of a DWI.
Ohio Ohio also has license plate–impoundment and –immobilization laws. For a second DWI offense within six years, the vehicle used may be immobilized or its license plates may be impoundment for 90 days. License plates also may be impounded for offenders who have had their licenses revoked or suspended for any vehicle-related death.
Okla. No
Ore. No
Pa. No
R.I. No
S.C. No
S.D. No
Tenn. No
Texas No
Utah No
Vt. No
Va. No
Wash. No
W.Va. No
Wis. No
Wyo. No

SOURCE: McKnight et al., 2008.