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.

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