On March 30, Governor Baker signed into law An Act relative to motor vehicle license suspension, an important reform of our criminal justice system.
Previously in Massachusetts, individuals convicted of a non-violent drug offense automatically lost their licenses for up to 5 years, and faced a reinstatement fee of at least $500 per offense, even if their offenses had nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle. This new law repeals the automatic suspension and the fee effective immediately.
Every year, approximately 7,000 people had their license suspended due to a drug conviction. That’s 7,000 people who cannot drive to their jobs, court dates, or rehabilitation meetings, making it harder for them to rejoin their families and communities. In a state where 80% of people drive to work, unnecessary barriers to mobility only lead people back into the criminal justice system, not to successful recovery.
Additionally, driving records currently include non-driving license suspensions. Prospective employers and others can purchase warrants from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) for under $10. This can be used as a “back door CORI” check, where employers purchase RMV records for the purpose of obtaining information about criminal records, even if they would normally be sealed, expunged, or shielded by CORI reform.
The legislation prevents these checks, which harm the chances of employment for individuals convicted of a drug offense, and shields driving records revealing CORI information from public view. However, information will still be available to RMV employees and others with a legitimate need for access.
This new law will have no effect on license suspension penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and only removes the outdated requirement that automatically penalizes every drug conviction with a license suspension. Additionally, license suspension is now based on a judge’s discretion, allowing courts to consider the best course to recovery for minor drug offenders.
Further, in recognition of the ongoing opioid crisis and the danger of highly addictive stimulants, individuals convicted of trafficking heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine will still face automatic license suspensions. Reformed traffickers may receive temporary licenses for education or employment purposes. The RMV will be required to report to the legislature on the total number of licenses that have been suspended under the new trafficking provisions and the total number of temporary licenses issued for education or employment purposes.
As the bill’s original House sponsor, I am proud of this work to remove unnecessary barriers to employment and education, which primarily impact young people who have completed their sentences but have been barred from driving because of minor drug offenses. By eliminating an ineffective and unfair law that hinders folks from re-entering society, we send a message that folks who have served their time deserve a second chance. In light of the opioid epidemic we are currently facing, this change is necessary for people in recovery to succeed, and to reduce the harm done to our communities.
State Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain, was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1998. She is the chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.