In response to tarbelsanklebiter’s excellent question about the status of the driver’s license suspension law.
First a little background.
Back in 1989, Massachusetts passed a law that revokes for a period of one to five years the driver’s license of anyone who is convicted of a drug offense. Any drug offense — even offenses that have nothing to do with cars or driving. State law also imposes a $500 fee to have a license reinstated after the time has been served.
At the time, our leaders were under the impression that the U.S. Congress was about to enact legislation withholding highway funds from states that did not follow suit, and they seem to have thought that the law was a good idea anyway.
But when the federal law purporting to withhold highway funds finally passed, it included an enormous loophole — a state could preserve its funds simply by informing the feds that it had chosen not to pass a license suspension law. Free to repeal its law, Massachusetts has instead kept it on the books all this time.
Twenty-five years later, it’s clear that the law has failed: it is not a deterrent to drug use (people with revoked licenses drive anyway because they need to get to their jobs and need to get their kids to school). It busies law enforcement with issuing additional citations to drivers whose licenses have been revoked instead of tending to more important matters. Licensed drivers are saddled with additional insurance costs because more unlicensed (and therefore uninsured) drivers are on the roads. And the law adds to the difficulties that those who have been convicted of drug offenses have in reintegrating — staying out of prison and off drugs. As one of the state’s public defenders described the law to the Globe, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”
If anybody could defend the policy wisdom of this law, it would be the state’s District Attorneys. And even they favor repeal. (More background on this ill-considered piece of legislation is here).
So in September, the Senate voted to repeal the law. On January 6, the House took up the Senate bill, but instead of an outright repeal, the House version kept in place license suspensions for persons convicted of trafficking in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. (The legislative history of all this is here. The inside baseball of how the House bill came to be amended to preserve the suspensions for these convictions is a story in itself.)
If you think “trafficking” has to mean kilos of drugs packed like bricks, you’re wrong. It is possible to be convicted in Massachusetts of trafficking for having 18 grams of cocaine in your possession. That’s not close to even one kilo – it’s 1.8 percent of one kilo. And the underlying question remains — how exactly does suspending a driver’s license help re-entry?
The Senate responded to the House bill on Thursday, reiterating its position that all license suspensions should be repealed. Now the bill goes back to the House. It’s not clear what happens next. If you think the Senate position is a more sensible policy, you might want to let your State Representative know that you think the House should agree to Senate Bill 2094).