Does an NC Limited Driving Privilege Authorize Driving in Another State?

Conviction of a host of criminal offenses (many, but not all involving vehicles) may lead to the revocation of a person’s driver’s license by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV). See, e.g., G.S. 20-13.2, 20-16, 20-17, 20-17.3. For certain types of revocations when statutory criteria are satisfied, a state court judge may issue a limited driving privilege that authorizes a person to drive during certain hours for limited purposes, notwithstanding the revocation of the person’s driver’s license. See, e.g., G.S. 20-179.3. Questions occasionally arise about whether the issuance of such a privilege authorizes driving in another state.

Consider the following circumstances: A North Carolina resident is convicted of driving while impaired in district court. That conviction triggers a one-year license revocation. The district court judge who presided over the criminal case issues a limited driving privilege that authorizes the person to drive for work-related purposes during standard working hours. May the person drive pursuant to that privilege to and from her workplace in a bordering state?

Since driving privileges are a matter of state law, the answer to this question is determined by the law of the state in which the person is driving. In other words, a limited driving privilege issued by a North Carolina court has the effect in another state that is accorded to it by that other state’s law.

Let’s take a look at the governing laws in our neighboring states.

South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — like North Carolina — permit driving by nonresidents who are licensed in their home states while exempting them from local licensure requirements. See S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-30; Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-304(3), (4); Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-307. The central issue to resolve in answering the question posed above is whether a limited driving privilege is a “license” within the meaning of these statutes, thus authorizing the nonresident holder to drive in the state.

While North Carolina law defines the term “license” to include “[t]he privilege of any person to drive a motor vehicle whether or not such person holds a valid license,” see G.S. 20-4.01(17), South Carolina’s, Tennessee’s, and Virginia’s statutes lack that clarity. Tennessee and Virginia define the term license as a license issued by their respective states. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-102(20) (“‘Driver license’ means a license issued by the department to an individual that authorizes the individual to operate a motor vehicle on the highways”); Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-100 (“’Driver’s license’ means any license . . . issued under the laws of the Commonwealth authorizing the operation of a motor vehicle.”). South Carolina does not separately define the term license at all, but does define revocation of driver’s license as “the termination by formal action of the Department of Motor Vehicles of a person’s driver’s license or privilege to operate a motor vehicle on the public highways. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-10(13) (emphasis added).

There is a reasonable argument that the term license as used in these states’ nonresident exemption statutes may be read broadly to include driving privileges granted to nonresidents by their home states – assuming that the person’s driving privileges were not independently revoked by South Carolina, Tennessee or Virginia. See State v. Bray, 774 S.W.2d 555 (Mo. Ct. App. 1989) (recognizing that while one state does not have the power to revoke generally the driver’s license of another state’s resident, a state may revoke a nonresident’s driving privilege). Indeed, Tennessee allows a person granted a restricted license (the equivalent of a limited driving privilege) by his former state to apply for a restricted license upon becoming a Tennessee resident. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502. Perhaps the Tennessee legislature limited this provision’s reach to new residents because limited privileges issued to nonresidents by their home states already authorized driving in Tennessee. Cf. State v. Thompson, 88 S.W.3d 611 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2000) (holding that even though a nonresident who possesses a valid driver license from their home state generally has the privilege to drive on Tennessee highways and is exempt from Tennessee licensing provisions, a nonresident with a valid Mississippi license was not authorized to drive in Tennessee following a Tennessee license revocation without having his Tennessee driving privileges formally reinstated).

Virginia law permits a nonresident convicted in Virginia to obtain a driving privilege from the Virginia court. Va. Code Ann. § 46.2-398.1. Again perhaps the limited reach of this statute indicates that a nonresident granted a limited driving privilege by her home state (based on a conviction from a jurisdiction other than Virginia) may, without further authorization, drive in Virginia pursuant to that privilege.

For its part, Georgia exempts nonresidents from having a Georgia driver’s license if the person has a “valid driver’s license issued to him or her in his or her home state” and the “person would otherwise satisfy all requirements to receive a Georgia driver’s license.” Ga. Code. Ann. § 40-5-21. Georgia, like North Carolina, defines the term license to include the privilege of a person to drive whether or not the person holds a valid license. Ga. Code. Ann. § 40-1-1(24). Reading these provisions together, it appears that a North Carolina resident with a limited driving privilege may lawfully drive in Georgia pursuant to the terms of that privilege if the privilege could have been granted under Georgia law. As it happens, Georgia permits the issuance of a limited driving permit following a conviction for impaired driving if the person does not have a previous conviction within five years. See Ga. Code Ann. § 40-5-64.

Have thoughts about or experience with this issue? I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at denning@sog.unc.edu.

Thanks to Deonta Woods, our student research assistant and rising 2L at UNC Law, for his help identifying the relevant law in our bordering states.