License fee payment plan targets “rabbit hole” trapping drivers

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The Middlesex district attorney and a state lawmaker from Everett are teaming up to propose a new approach to paying fees related to suspended or revoked driver’s licenses.

A bill filed by Rep. Joseph McGonagle and backed by District Attorney Marian Ryan would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to accept partial payments of fines related to multiple license suspensions or revocations. It directs the registrar to allow any person owing such fees to enter into a monthly payment plan, with minimum payments of $25.

Under the bill (H 3535), licenses could be conditionally reinstated after the first payment if the person was otherwise qualified to drive, and fully reinstated once the fines were paid in their entirety.

“Without speaking to the appropriateness of the amount of the fines, it just becomes you’re going down a rabbit hole that is pretty impossible to get out of both because you can’t go to work and you can’t in any way, if you have some money, chip away at what you owe,” Ryan said.

She gave the example of someone who owes the RMV $1,200 and received a $600 stimulus check. Unable to pay off half their bill with that $600, the person might put it aside with the intent of saving up another $600, but “inevitably what happens is you kind of eat away at that six and you never get to twelve,” Ryan said.

Ryan represents the state’s largest county, including dense urban areas on MBTA subway lines like Cambridge and Somerville, and smaller, more rural towns like Ashby and Dunstable.

Ryan said parts of Middlesex County lack effective public transportation, and that in other areas where there are transit options, the cost for daily use to get to work can pile on more financial burdens on top of the fines and the expenses associated with a car that the driver is unable to use.

She said the partial-payments bill would not apply for drunk-driving cases or other safety-related reasons someone might not be eligible to drive. She said it focuses on “financial reasons for not driving,” like not renewing a registration or missing excise tax payments.

The bill also does not contemplate how multiple fines can add up or the levels where those fines are set, though Ryan said those are topics “we will probably be looking at” at some point down the road.

“This is certainly what I view was a much more attractive first step,” she said. “Let’s not even get into how much they owe or whether they should owe that much. For everything else, your college tuition, your house payment or whatever, you set up a payment plan.”

Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa, Carmen Gentile and Liz Malia and Sen. Sal DiDomenico, all Democrats, have signed onto the bill as cosponsors. It’s one of 386 pieces of legislation before the Transportation Committee for review so far this session.

Another bill, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, would end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines and fees. The ACLU said that bill (H 3453 / S 2304), which was filed by Rep. Nika Elugardo and Sen. Julian Cyr with 45 other lawmakers signed on in support, “would eliminate several debt-based license and registration suspension triggers that are not related to safe driving.”

In a February statement, Elugardo called it “unfair, unreasonable, and counterproductive to deprive a person who has unpaid debts of a driver’s license, the one sure asset that most people use to get a job and to get to their job” and said the bill “continues the unsexy but absolutely essential work of removing structural inequities like this from the Massachusetts General Laws.”

A 2016 state law repealed a 1989 statute that automatically suspended the licenses of people convicted of drug crimes not related to driving and waived the $500 reinstatement fee for those whose licenses were suspended under the old law. Supporters at the time said that legislation would help people get to work, participate in legal proceedings, and avoid the criminal justice system in the future.

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