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Colorado law has no way to enforce penalties for drivers without valid commercial driver's license

Law enforcement must rely on federal laws, inspections and compliance reviews to keep bad truckers off the road.

DENVER — When the crime doesn’t match the punishment, it turns out you can’t enforce the penalty for doing something wrong. For two years now, truck drivers behind the wheel of 80,000 pound semis without the proper license couldn’t be punished under state law.

That’s about to change, but it could make Colorado’s new law one of the most lenient in the nation.

Back in 2021, the legislature made changes to the penalties for certain laws under a push for misdemeanor reform. The penalty for driving without a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) was decreased from a misdemeanor to a traffic infraction. 

That’s where the problem begins.

"Previously, driving without a CDL was a misdemeanor. If you got pulled over in a truck without a CDL, it’s a summons into court. You had to go in front of a judge and they would determine the penalty," said Maj. JP Burt with Colorado State Patrol (CSP). "When that changed to be a traffic infraction two years ago, what they didn’t do is reset the fine schedule. So judges are put in a precarious position under the criminal justice system to apply misdemeanor level penalties to a traffic infraction level violation."

Burt knows his troopers haven’t been writing tickets to drivers without a valid CDL for the past two years. Instead, they rely on inspections and compliance reviews to keep bad truckers off the road. Federal laws are also enforced which help law enforcement agencies like CSP take trucks off the road. 

"It makes it unenforceable because the judges are really bound by law to dismiss those citations. That’s where we can come in on the back end to do the inspections and compliance reviews to at least hold them accountable in some sense," said Burt. "Technically, we could write them a ticket, but we know that’s not the way the law is intended to work. It’s intentional that we wouldn’t write a ticket and use other means at our disposal to manage that enforcement."

Lawmakers are now debating a bill that would allow agencies to enforce the penalties under the rules.

There are currently two versions of the bill. A Senate version increases it to a misdemeanor. The House version keeps it at a traffic violation.

If lawmakers pass the version of the bill leaving the punishment at a traffic infraction, it would make it one of the most lenient in the nation. There's serious concern that paying a $115 fine won't deter bad companies from putting bad drivers on the road without a valid license. Industry groups supporting stricter penalties say paying these fines will become a cost of doing business for these dangerous companies that put unqualified drivers on the road. 

"The real goal is to work with the legislature to get the fines and penalties corrected to the right level so that officers can start writing tickets again to be held accountable again in the criminal justice system," said Burt. 

After two years with an unenforceable penalty, there will likely be something on the books to hold people accountable under the law.

"At least we have this first step that due to an error in how these laws came together we didn’t have for a couple years now," said Skyler McKinley with AAA.

AAA is supporting the bill with stricter penalties. 

Every single person who drives in a car is impacted by this. In a crash in Weld County last year, five people were killed by a driver without a proper CDL behind the wheel of a truck. The goal is to impose penalties that can actually be enforced.

"Law making is a lot like sausage making. There are always unintended consequences. You think you can look at every specific issue in the exact way you need to. But sometimes mistakes are made, oversights are made in the legislative process," said McKinley. "We really do have a responsibility to democracy to align the penalty with the crime. That’s what every person can expect."

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