When Wyoming resident Celeste Armstrong had her driver's license suspended a year ago, she had no way of knowing that her case could completely change the way licenses are suspended. But the University of Wyoming's Defender Aid Clinic took up her case and eventually won in Albany County District Court.
Clinic Director Professor Lauren McLane and Student Attorney Nathan Yanchek demonstrated that the Wyoming Department of Transportation had been using the wrong law to suspend licenses. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor spoke with McLane about what this means for Wyoming drivers.
Lauren McLane: Ms. Armstrong had a speeding ticket that occurred in the city of Laramie. She has a Wyoming driver's license, so an in-state license, she's driving within the state of Wyoming. When she's in Laramie, she gets a speeding ticket and that ticket eventually goes unpaid. And at some point in time, when you have unpaid tickets, the Department of Transportation can take action against your license, which is exactly what happened with Ms. Armstrong. They sent a notice to her indicating that they wish to suspend her license for this unpaid ticket. Of course, the big issue here is the notice that they were suspending her license [is] under the Nonresident Violator Compact.
Jeff Victor: So, getting a speeding ticket, not paying it, having your license suspended, that seems more or less like a normal sequence of events. So what is weird about this specifically?
LM: What's weird about it is her suspension letter indicated that her license was being suspended under the nonresident violator compact (NRVC). So that's indicative of somebody who is either a nonresident of Wyoming, or indicative that you might have some sort of out-of-state problem that went unresolved. So when we first got the case, we were calling previous states she lived in to try to figure out if she had some unfinished business like somewhere in the Northeast. And of course there weren't problems. The notice is very narrow on what you can challenge, and so drivers aren't put on notice, like, well what if this whole thing, this whole nonresident thing, is completely incorrect. Well the notice doesn't really give them the opportunity to think that that's something they could even bring up at the hearing. So this is a very confusing suspension letter to receive when you're an in-state driver with an in-state ticket that's hanging up your license.
JV: So tell me about the result, the ruling in this case?
LM: We very firmly believe that one cannot be prosecuted for driving under a suspended license unless that underlying suspension is valid. The city of Laramie disagreed with that and so we had to litigate this. So, the end result was a good result for Ms. Armstrong. Ultimately Judge Kricken in Albany County District Court, we believe ruled correctly and decided that the nonresident violator compact did not apply to in-state drivers with in-state problems, basically. That instead, it would apply to Ms. Armstrong if she got a ticket in Colorado and Colorado contacted Wyoming and said, 'Hey, one of your drivers really messed up here, we want you to suspend the license.' Or say, Ms. Armstrong was a resident of Colorado and driving in our state and did something that was problematic.
JV: Does the process or the reality for the person with the suspension look different if the state uses something other than this nonresident compact?
LM: So under the NRVC, your suspension is indefinite until you fix the issue. Versus. If you are suspended under, I think it's statute 31-7-129, that's the state statute for these kinds of tickets, then you are only suspended for one year.
JV: So I imagine this win in the courtroom is a big deal for Armstrong, but what does it mean for Wyoming residents or Wyoming drivers more generally?
LM: I think what it means is that no longer can the Department of Transportation just, under this blanket rule that doesn't even apply, suspend your license for one unpaid parking ticket or speeding ticket that occurs in the state of Wyoming on your in-state driver's license. So the Department of Transportation has lost some power in many respects. It calls upon them to have more accountability and to use the law properly. What we hope is that there will be less suspension orders now because they'll have less opportunity. So there's going to be less suspensions now as a result of this and certainly more clarity in the suspension letters that drivers receive.
JV: Well thank you for taking the time to tell me all about this today.
LM: Yeah, thanks for your interest.