New legislative proposal seeks to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions and incarceration.

The ACLU of Massachusetts today announced its support for a proposal to end driver’s license suspensions due to unpaid fines and fees. “An Act to Eliminate Debt-Based Incarceration and Suspensions,” filed last week by Representative Nika Elugardo and Senator Julian Cyr, would eliminate several debt-based license and registration suspension triggers that are not related to safe driving.

Under current Massachusetts law, the Registry of Motor Vehicles is required to suspend the driver’s license of any person who fails to pay monetary sanctions, including fines and fees. Every year, Massachusetts suspends the driver's licenses of tens of thousands of people for defaulting on debt, even when the reason for their debt has nothing to do with driving safety violations or traffic laws.

“Driver’s license suspensions should be imposed for the limited purpose of keeping unsafe drivers off the road, not as a debt-collection mechanism,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Once a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they can no longer lawfully drive to and from work, school, job interviews, medical appointments, or the grocery store. At a time of record job loss and mounting debt in Massachusetts, we commend Representative Elugardo and Senator Cyr for introducing legislation to help break the cycle of poverty and incarceration in our Commonwealth.”

Taking driver’s licenses away from people who are struggling financially drives them deeper into poverty, unemployment, debt, and entanglement with the criminal legal system. In Massachusetts, driving with a suspended license carries a penalty of up to one year of jail in addition to more fines and an extended period of suspension. Debt-based license suspensions are particularly harmful for people living in rural areas or with limited access to public transportation. HD2885/SD2040 would relieve tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents from this harmful practice.

"Everybody wants to dismantle structural racism these days, but few know the surgical precision that effort takes on the technical level,” said Representative Nika Elugardo (D-15th Suffolk). “Our laws are replete with outdated provisions that propagate and perpetuate poverty. It is 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. HD2885 continues the unsexy but absolutely essential work of removing structural inequities like this from the Massachusetts General Laws. We need bipartisan support for this just and ethical approach to helping people get back on their feet after hard times."

Recently published Massachusetts Trial Court data and a recent Harvard study on racial disparities in the state criminal justice system confirm that license suspensions are a key determinant of criminal system contact in Massachusetts. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, motor vehicle violations accounted for nearly 40 percent of all trial court charges statewide. Ultimately, current law punishes the poor and perpetuates inequalities in the criminal legal system.

"In remote and rural regions with limited public transportation, a debt-based license suspension is a poverty trap. They make it harder to travel to a job interview or work while debts continue to fester,” said State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro). “Debt-based suspensions are an outgrowth of white supremacy and a punitive approach to justice that disproportionately harms Black and Brown residents—but like most penalties stained by white supremacy, they subject everyone to greater risk of poverty."

This is the first time this bill has been introduced in Massachusetts. At least 12 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted legislative reforms to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. With momentum at the state level, U.S. senators have introduced federal legislation to incentivize states to enact these reforms by providing grants to states that do not suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew a driver’s license for failure to pay a fine or fee.