Bill would end license suspensions for drug convictions

Senate to vote next week on law affecting 7,000 each year


SENATE LEADERS PLAN a vote next week to repeal a state law mandating that anyone convicted of a drug offense, regardless of whether their crime involved the operation of a motor vehicle, have their driver’s license suspended.

The law has been criticized for having little to no impact in deterring drug offenses unrelated to driving, and has been blamed by law enforcement and corrections officials as erecting an unnecessary barrier for people trying to turn their lives around.

“We’re so excited. Like a prisoner, it’s been let loose,” said Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler, who filed the original bill. “But it’s such an important bill. It’s so important to people who have served time, and then they’re handicapped in terms of being able to get a license back. You don’t make money in jail, and it’s not easy to get a job and most of them need a car to get to a job.”

Stemming from a 1989 federal law that required states to agree to suspend licenses for drug offenders if they wished to continue fully accessing state highway funds, some lawmakers and Attorney General Maura Healey have noted that states have the option under that law of opting out of the rule without jeopardizing future funding.

In addition to repealing the law, the bill calls on the Registry of Motor Vehicles to shield from the public all records of the license suspensions and underlying offenses for drivers penalized under the statute.

Rep. Elizabeth Malia has filed a similar bill (H 3039) in the House.

“We’re still looking at it. We might have some very important amendments,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said.

Healey, who supports eliminating the mandatory suspension, told lawmakers in July that 34 states have eliminated the automatic license suspension from their laws. In Massachusetts, those penalized under the law must also pay a minimum $500 license reinstatement fee, which the attorney general has said can create another barrier for low-income residents to get work, drive to the grocery store, pick up their children up from school, or take parents or other family members to medical appointments.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, at a hearing this summer, called the law a “significant barrier to re-entry” for offenders who leave prison and face challenges finding employment and restarting their lives.

The bill is also supported by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. Approximately 7,000 people each year in Massachusetts lose their driving privileges for drug offenses.

“What are we encouraging them to do? Go back and drive without a license? Fall back on their old habits? That’s not a good idea,” said Chandler, of Worcester.

The proposed revision to the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund, recommended by the Health Care Financing Committee, would alter the criteria used to determine who must pay a surcharge into the fund.

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
Under current law, anyone looking to reinstate their drivers license after having it suspended as result of three speeding convictions within a one year period or receiving five or more moving violations in a three-year period must pay a $50 surcharge in the fund.

The bill advancing in the Senate calls for the surcharge to be applied for drivers with the three speeding convictions, three surchargeable events within a two-year period, or as the result of receiving seven surchargeable events.