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July 24, 2015

Officials reconsidering license suspensions for drug offenders

Law enforcement is coalescing around proposed legislation to repeal a law that mandates the automatic suspension of someone's driver's license if they are convicted of a drug offense, regardless of whether the crime involved the operation of motor vehicle.

Attorney General Maura Healey testified before the Transportation Committee on Thursday in support of bills to repeal the mandate. The directive stems 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.

The Legislature, however, has the authority to opt out of the rule without jeopardizing funding, she said.

"Our office has seen no evidence that license suspensions are an effective way to deter drug offenses unrelated to driving. We do see, however, license suspensions as preventing people from getting to work, getting to the grocery store, picking their children up from school, taking their parents or other family members to medical appointments and fulfilling other obligations," Healey told lawmakers.

Thirty-four states have eliminated the automatic license suspension from their laws, according to Healey's office. The provision also carries a minimum $500 license reinstatement fee for drug offenders, which can create another barrier for low-income residents.

Healey said that 7,000 people each year in Massachusetts lose their driving privileges for drug offenses, a majority of whom were penalized for committing drug crimes that didn't involve a vehicle.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian called the law a "significant barrier to re-entry" for offenders who leave prison and face challenges finding employment and restarting their lives. Healey said the repeal bills are also supported by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

In response to a question from Republican Rep. Steve Howitt about how repealing the law might impact the handling of repeat drug offenders or those convicted of drug trafficking, Healey said the courts would retain discretion to suspend anyone's license, calling it an important "safety valve."

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