Slamming the practice as an ineffective public safety tool that criminalizes poverty, civil rights advocates and lawmakers pressed Monday to prohibit the Registry of Motor Vehicles from suspending driver licenses over unpaid fees.
Gavi Wolfe, legislative director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told the Transportation Committee that RMV data show the agency suspended more than 100,000 licenses in 2019 for “reasons that have nothing to do with roadway safety,” including debt owed.
Drivers who lose their licenses often have fewer ways to get around, limiting their ability to hold a job, Wolfe said. To get their licenses reinstated, they need to pay back both the original debt and additional late fines and additional fees, creating a larger burden than on motorists who can afford the original charge.
“Like many states, Massachusetts has come to reflexively turn to license suspension as a hammer for debt collection, but like debtors’ prisons before, this system is not effective,” Wolfe said. “Instead, it cruelly criminalizes poverty. It wastes public resources and it harms public safety.”
A bill from Democrat Rep. Nika Elugardo of Boston and Democrat Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro (H 3453 / S 2304) would scrap several triggers the state uses to suspend licenses and vehicle registrations that are based on debt and “not related to safe driving,” Cyr told his colleagues. The legislation would also create a process allowing judges to reduce fines and fees for those facing financial hardships.
Supporters also argued that the frequency of license suspensions creates knock-on effects across the justice system since driving on a suspended license can be punished by one year in jail.
According to Wolfe, driving with a suspended license was the “leading charge” in 11 or 12 percent of Trial Court cases each year between 2018 and 2021, a trend he argued leads to increased burden and unnecessary spending on police, courts, prosecutors and other agencies.
“Decriminalizing driving with a suspended license would save these agencies millions of dollars,” Wolfe said.