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What Is the Right to Travel?

The United States Constitution provides the legal basis for many fundamental rights American citizens enjoy. Yet, the phrasing of the Constitution can lead to different interpretations and misunderstandings.

One of the freedoms in the U.S. Constitution is our freedom of movement and right to travel. Some people interpret this right as meaning that they do not need a driver's license to operate a vehicle on public roadways. Do state and federal laws agree with that interpretation?

Understanding Your Right to Travel

When you see "travel," you might first think about international adventure or holiday travel. Yet, the legal interpretation of your right to travel is different.

This legal right generally means you can move around areas of the U.S. without the government impeding you. A state can't keep you stuck within its borders or prohibit entry. States must uphold the rights of the people, except as part of due process for specific case types.

Your right to travel under U.S. law doesn't include the right to use a particular mode of travel, such as a motor vehicle or airplane. You must still qualify for the transportation mode. For example, you'd buy a plane ticket and pass a security inspection before a flight.

Freedom of Movement Has Limits

Rights can be subject to limitations. For example, you have a right to free speech, but that doesn't mean you can yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater or incite violence.

Driving poorly or without adequate training could harm others. It is in everyone's best interests to ensure all drivers who share the road know what they are doing.

Are Driver's License Laws Constitutional?

State governments can require motorists to have a valid driver's license on public roads without violating their constitutional rights. The right to travel doesn't mean you can drive without a valid driver's license and proper vehicle registration.

Public safety can override individual freedoms in some contexts, like driving. Roads and highways are public infrastructure. Dangerous driving has the potential to harm others and their property. Travel is a right, but driving is a privilege.

Drivers Must Obey Traffic Laws

No matter your state, you must have a valid driver's license. You also need all endorsements for the type of vehicle you are operating, such as motorcycle or commercial vehicle endorsements. Driving without a license can result in significant charges.

Even after getting a license, your permission to drive could be temporary. The right to travel doesn't mean you can go wherever and however you please. For example, you can't drive where there is a road closure or on private property.

States can use license penalties and police powers to protect highway safety. A police officer can stop you on the road without violating your rights. Law enforcement and state courts can sometimes take away your driving privileges.

Federal Court Cases Clarify Common Law for Travel

The Constitution set forth the original text, implying the freedom of movement and travel. Like many old legal documents, the original text was vague, raising new legal questions as the country developed.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on cases that affect what this right means today, including:

  • Hendrick v. State of Maryland, which explains the basic relationship between local driving laws and the right to travel
  • Shapiro v. Thompson, which concerns whether waiting periods for state welfare benefits deter interstate travel
  • Sáenz v. Roe, which evaluates how the right to travel impacts equal treatment between states

These Supreme Court decisions determine what your right to travel includes. They explain the boundary between state laws and your constitutional rights.

Get Legal Resources for Traffic Laws

States can regulate your travel with driving laws, but there is a fine line between respecting and violating your rights. You may have grounds for legal action. An experienced attorney can give advice and help protect your driving privileges.

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