Senate okays repeal of license suspension law for drug offenders

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STATE HOUSE — Hoping to provide relief from an “unacceptable burden” imposed by the state on individuals convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving, the Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to repeal a 1989 law mandating that those offenders have their licenses suspended.

Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, spoke passionately in favor of granting more autonomy to those who had already served their sentence for drug crimes.

“They’re trying to recover some semblance for their lives, the ability to provide for themselves, the ability to go out and work, to pay for housing,” Donnelly said.

On the floor of the Senate, Donnelly confided that the week prior he had buried a “very close” member of his family, whose death was related to addiction and a “lack of hope.” Saying he felt an “obligation” to talk about his personal loss, Donnelly told the News Service, “Even though it’s very difficult on a personal level so many families are going through it.”

Though some senators attempted to expand the scope of the bill to add new protocols for roadside drug testing when someone is suspected by police of driving under the influence of drugs, Senate leadership kept the bill relatively narrowly tailored.

The bill (S 2014) repeals a 1989 law that automatically suspended the licenses of people who violate controlled substances laws.

Backed by Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler, the legislation also shields the drug-conviction related suspensions from publicly available driving records and allows free license renewal for those who faced suspension under that provision of law.

[Watch: Senators On License Bill]

[Watch: McGee On Drugged Driving Test]

Chandler said the $500 license reinstatement fee and the loss of mobility for those just getting out of jail on drug crimes is an “unacceptable burden,” and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said tough penalties on drug offenders have been an “abject failure” over the last roughly 25 years.

Edwin Melendez, a Worcester man who posed for a photo with Chandler outside the chamber, said he had been arrested for possession of ecstasy, was unable to make bail and remained in jail for 30 days. Melendez told the News Service though he has never had a Massachusetts driver’s license, the law is a burden to him, causing him to walk about a mile and a half to and from work while caring for his children of various ages.

“This is the only thing holding me back,” Melendez told reporters. Saying he had been in recovery for five years, Melendez said, “I just got my marbles. Now I’m going to play with them the correct way.”

Next week the Senate plans to take up a more far-reaching bill also dealing with drug addiction, focusing on prevention. In addition to the driver’s license legislation, the Senate adopted a resolution saying it is opposed to a law that “requires in all circumstances” license suspension or revocation for a drug offense. Chandler said without the resolution the state would be at risk of losing federal transportation funding.

“It was important to deal with this issue, which reflects the change that has occurred over the last five years or so of how we need to help rather than create obstacles for people,” Chandler told reporters. She said, “They’re imprisoned by the problems that they have. They did the crime. They did the crime. And quite frankly they’re ready to re-enter life, really civilized life.”

The bill will now move to the House, where Chandler is “hopeful” for passage, and if it becomes law Massachusetts could become the 35th state not to impose the license suspension on drug offenders.

There was some interest in the Senate for a new law enforcement procedure to test drivers suspected of intoxication for the presence of drugs – similar to Breathlyzer exams used to determine whether a driver has drunk to much alcohol.

Senate Minority Bruce Tarr said the tests for drugs wouldn’t have the same rigid standard as blood alcohol tests, though the evidence could be used at trial. Senate Chairman of the Judiciary Committee William Brownsberger said evidence of marijuana or cocaine use can remain in someone’s body long after the effects of the drugs have worn off.

Senate Chairman of the Transportation Committee Tom McGee said a similar bill is in committee and requires additional study.

“There’s a lot of questions. I think the debate was very healthy,” McGee told reporters. Asked if his committee would move any legislation on the subject, McGee said, “I think it’s too early to say what we’re going to do.”

The Senate did adopt a Sen. Bruce Tarr amendment directing the Division of Insurance to study the possibility of reducing from six years the duration that a moving violation can count against a driver for the purpose of calculating insurance premiums. The division is due to report back to the Legislature before the end of the year.

–Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service