Drivers Licenses and Drug Crimes

Compromise reached (March 2016):

Both branches acted on this legislation last fall. The House and Senate conference committee on this legislation has reached an agreement on a bill that is very reasonable.

The compromise stops just short of completely eliminating the license suspension after drug convictions, but it removes the suspensions in roughly 99% of cases: It eliminates the suspension for all drug convictions except those for trafficking heroin, cocaine or fentanyl. The number of people convicted of trafficking offenses (higher level dealing offenses) is only about 200 out of the 7000 drug related convictions each year. Additionally, the bill changes the rule so that any license suspension should run from the date of conviction — if someone is doing five or ten years for a trafficking offense, their license suspension will run out before their release. For those doing shorter trafficking sentences, who would experience a year or two of suspension after their release, the bill makes clear that they should be able to apply for hardship licensees for education and employment or other reasons.

The bill also includes a new element that I’m pleased with. It closes what has been referred to as a loophole in the CORI law. It requires the registry to shield from driving record inquiry license suspensions for drug violations and several other kinds of suspensions that are not driving related.

Finally, the bill provides that licenses suspended under the old rules should be reinstated without fees.

This compromise represents big progress and I am pleased to support it.

In 1989, when the crack epidemic was on the front page every day, the Massachusetts legislature was among the first in the nation to pass a law requiring that the registrar of motor vehicles suspend the driver’s license of anyone convicted of any drug crime. It’s about time we revisited that law. There are several bills pending in the legislature to do so.

In 1990, the federal government followed Massachusetts’ lead and pushed through a federal highway funding law pushing states to enact license suspension laws under threat of losing highway funds. If they do not wish to enact suspension laws, states can opt out, but only if both the executive and the legislative branches certify their opposition in order to continue receiving funds.

Today, when opiate addiction has become so widespread across all demographics, we are developing a better understanding of the challenge of recovery. According to one recent survey, 33 states have concluded that driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses don’t make sense.  The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has adopted a policy statement against use of license suspensions to accomplish social goals other than safe driving.

When people’s lives fall apart as a result of addiction,they often hit bottom in an encounter with the criminal justice system. The foundation of durable recovery is employment and the commutes to many jobs require an automobile. Does it make sense to hold recovering people back from employment by keeping them from driving? In the same way, if a young man has fallen into selling drugs and ends up in prison, does it make sense to erect barriers to his lawful employment when he gets out?

The Massachusetts law does not specify the length of the suspension, only that it may not exceed five years. The Registry has, by regulation defined a schedule of suspension lengths ranging from one year for possessory offenses up to 5 years for more serious dealing offenses.

The deterrence effect of these policies is clearly minimal: The health and violence risks that drug users and drug dealers take (up to and including death) are much greater than the risk of license loss. However, once they are trying to get back on their feet, the loss of license is a very concrete impediment to them. And it affects a lot of people — according RMV data provided to EPOCA and the Prison Policy Institute, over 7000 lose their license every year in Massachusetts as a result of drug convictions.

License suspensions as a result of driving intoxicated are a completely different matter.  No one is advocating the repeal of those rules.

I hope we can make progress on this issue in the coming legislative session.  We also need to look at the other non-safety-related license suspension rules — notably, the rule that suspends licenses for non-payment of child support, a rule that makes even less sense than the drug suspension rule:  If we want to encourage people to pay child support, we should be making it easier for them to work, not harder for them to work.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

39 replies on “Drivers Licenses and Drug Crimes”

  1. Thank you Senator Brownsberger for this. Please also add language for this to stop taking licenses also for inability to afford ones child support. It is bad for the dad, he can not parent his child and he can’t find and keep a job too.

  2. “If we want to encourage people to pay child support, we should be making it easier for them to work, not harder for them to work.”

    Absolutely. I have never understood this rule.

  3. Will: I think that this is extremely on point. It is a sad state in relation to even the Boston area, that one needs a car to get a job (think even simple things like delivering pizza, or being a house cleaner — the types of things someone recovering from the bottom might first be employed as). The suspension, regardless of whether one was actually driving, is unnecessarily discriminatory.

    I hope that its appeal — or at least a clarified short term suspension — can be arrived at. There is a big difference between driving under the influence, which yes, should be penalized, versus being penalized for a crime not even committed.

    1. So you expect a drug addict to be responsible enough to not drive high.

      Someone else here said drug addiction is a “disease”.

      If it’s a disease, then they can’t help themselves to not drive while high can they?

    1. Will, I think you are right on target. How can people ever change if we impede that change?
      Thanks for paying attention to the details.

  4. I agree. We need to help people get back into a normal life, not hinder them. We also need to lighten up on drug possession sentences, and legalize the drugs that now enrich criminal gangs.

  5. Will – this is a great idea that could make a significant difference in a convicted drug user’s ability to achieve employment, etc.. Though many who have obtained a drug conviction do not concurrently have the financial means to own and maintain a vehicle, a number of jobs (even in construction laborer work, one of the available “refuge” jobs that values physical and motivational capacity for hard work above the stigma of a drug conviction) require that an employee have the capabiiity to drive company owned vehicles as part of the job requirements for hiring and/or retention. The caution that may have motivated the license loss penalty (that policy should not enable actively intoxicated drug users to drive) seems little applicable to anyone who is likely under the post-conviction supervision of stringent probation/parole oversight (which nowadays often includes random drug testing) and thus unnecessary, and any retention of even a drastically shortened license loss provision should include automatic “fee-free” reinstatement at the end of the suspension period, since the substantial reintatement fees imposed by the RMV are so large as to pose a significant practical barrier to those in strained financial circumstances struggling already to meet their required payments of post-conviction fees and fines to courts.

  6. 124 Pearl Street

    Simplyfying the procedure for cleaning up (redacting) CORIs after many years should be on the agenda.

  7. Amen. Massachusetts has so many disconnected laws and regulations, a sign of a reactionary government. What the Legislature needs is a quality control department that reviews laws for unintended consequences and puts foward corrective legislation on a regular basis to amend or repeal obsolete laws.

  8. What’s the most effective thing I can do to support these reforms? Is communicating with other legislators the best thing? By phone, Email, USPS mail, or personal visit? What about networking with others of the public to get them to add their voices? I’m grateful that you issue these Email reports, but let’s face it, very few of my friends are on your list or have time to read lots of Email on political issues.

  9. This is a sane and intelligent position. Thank you for addressing an issue that has been neglected for too long. that is long overdue. Thank you.
    Anne Leslie

  10. I hope the hard liners can be convinced that this makes both economic sense as well as showing people that they must be responsible citizens.

  11. Great to hear that you’re taking this on. It’s just one of the policies that make reentry so unnecessarily difficult.

  12. If an offense wasn’t committed while operating a vehicle it seems arbitrary that the driving license would be suspended. In fact it would probably hinder the treatment and rehabilitation of the drug offender.

  13. Don’t think my originals message went thru.
    Drug addictions is an illness, and as such, should be treated the same. You wouldn’t take a cancer patients license.
    It is difficult enough, for a recovering drug addict, without having add’l roadblocks, put in their path.

    1. Ryta: This notion of drug addiction as an illness is a difficult one for me to grasp. I guess because addiction is self-induced. Then, once addiction has taken hold, it’s an “illness”? Perhaps some get addicted through pain-killer over-prescription, but I suspect that is not the majority. However, I do agree that addicts need to be treated, not jailed. Does calling it an “illness” motivate addicts to seek and sustain help, or does it just let them off the hook?

  14. The threat of suspending a drug user’s drivers license does nothing to deter drug use and as you mentioned the suspension deters them from getting back on their feet.

    Ronald Regan’s “war on drugs” which mandated harsh prison sentences for drug use has also been shown to be an ineffective deterrent to drug abuse and a prison record prevents them from being employed after they serve their sentence.

    Both penalties should be softened for first offenders.

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