The Massachusetts House signed off on a measure last week that would end the state’s longstanding policy of automatically suspending for up to five years the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses.
The bill was approved unanimously during the first House session of the new year. The Senate approved a similar version of the legislation last year and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated he supports the proposal at least in concept.
The automatic license suspensions, born in the 1980s as part of a get tough approach to drug crimes, applies even in cases when the violation is unrelated to driving.
Supporters of the bill argued the existing law only makes it harder for offenders to secure jobs and take care of their families after they’ve served their sentences.
“They can’t get a driver’s license and when we expect them to show up at appointments, become dutiful members of their communities, get jobs, access the transportation system, they are unable to do so,” said Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
Straus noted that the bill would not stop judges from suspending driver’s licenses for people convicted of crimes that involve driving under the influence of drugs. He also pointed to support for the legislation from law enforcement officials including Attorney General Maura Healey, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
“This outdated state law is an unnecessary barrier and burden for thousands in this state trying to rebuild their lives and stay out of the criminal justice system,” Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement after the House vote.
Before passing, the House added a Republican-backed amendment that would keep in place automatic license suspensions of up to five years for people convicted of trafficking in large quantities of certain drugs, while also allowing those individuals an opportunity to appeal to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles for earlier reinstatement of their licenses.
Thirty-four states have already eliminated provisions automatically suspending driver’s licenses for drug offenses.