Massachusetts hikes fines, barriers for unlicensed drivers
Driving without a license in Massachusetts just got riskier.
Overriding a veto from Gov. Deval Patrick, lawmakers approved a requirement that people show proof of legal residence, such as a Massachusetts driver's license, to register a vehicle in this state.
Patrick and legislators found common ground on a related measure to hike fines against unlicensed motorists. Stiffer fines also will hit employers who knowingly hire anyone without a license as a driver and vehicle owners who deliberately let unlicensed people behind the wheel.
The governor also signed off on increased penalties for stealing or forging driver’s licenses, learner’s permits or identification cards.
Patrick on July 27 vetoed the registration bill, saying it targeted undocumented immigrants and inappropriately required a state agency, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, to enforce federal immigration law.
The governor viewed tougher fines aimed at unlicensed drivers in a different light.
“Because there were clear public safety benefits and the provisions were race and ethnic neutral, I supported these measures,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Lawmakers overrode Patrick's veto on July 30. Supporters said the bill would prevent people from registering cars if they are in the country illegally and have no driver's license, according to State House News Service.
State data shows police across Massachusetts encounter tens of thousands of drivers who lack licenses every year, though the number charged has declined recently.
“This is a problem on the roads,” said Safe Roads Alliance President Jeff Larson, whose group is not involved in the immigration debate. “You get people who have lost their license for reasons that are legitimate, whether they have been drinking or broken some other law, and they continue to drive.”
Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Wayne Sampson also called unlicensed drivers “a very serious problem” in Massachusetts.
“The reason that it is so important to us is the number of these people that are involved in automobile accidents,” he said. “They don’t belong on the road in the first place.”
The issue is closely tied to the immigration debate because undocumented immigrants cannot legally obtain driver’s licenses, yet some drive anyway.
High-profile crashes involving illegal immigrants, including three deadly collisions in the Milford area from 2009 to 2011, helped spur the new legislation.
Steve Kropper, co-chairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, saw increased fines for unlicensed driving as one of many small steps that could help curb illegal immigration in the long run.
“I think that many small steps will by attrition solve the illegal immigration problem,” said Kropper, who favors stricter immigration policies.
Yet Frank Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, criticized lawmakers for tacking the unlicensed driver legislation onto a budget bill and passing it with little debate.
Allowing any state resident, regardless of immigration status, to seek a driver’s license would better show authorities who is on the road and ensure safe drivers, Soults said.
“It’s an issue of targeting the undocumented population and trying to make their lives more difficult when what really needs to be done, and the majority of Americans agree, is immigration reform,” he said.
Statewide, police in Massachusetts issued 24,406 charges for unlicensed driving in 2011, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
That was down from 27,273 in 2010 and 30,105 in 2009. As of June, police had issued 12,411 unlicensed driving charges so far this year.
Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows drivers without a license were involved in 30 of 299 fatal crashes in Massachusetts in 2010, the most recent year available. That represents about 10 percent of fatal crashes.
Police listed eight drivers simply as unlicensed, while 17 others had licenses previously suspended or revoked. Five more drivers had expired licenses.
Until now, the law said unlicensed drivers could face a fine of “not less than $100 nor more than $1,000.” Now, first-time offenders may be fined up to $500.
The fine jumps to between $500 and $1,000 for a second offense and $1,000 to $2,000 for subsequent violations.
The fine for knowingly hiring an unlicensed driver doubles for a first offense to $1,000 and rises from a maximum of $1,000 to $1,500 on a second offense. Fines are similar for people who knowingly allow unlicensed drivers to use their vehicles. These offenses also can carry jail time.
State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, cosponsored legislation with Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton, Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, for tougher unlicensed driving penalties than what passed.
The bill, which Fernandes called carefully-crafted and comprehensive, also tackled other areas meant to curb illegal immigration. While Fernandes said the penalty increases are not as aggressive as he would have liked, he is glad to see some incremental change on some of the issues his bill raised.
“If folks are operating without training, without licenses, if people are getting hurt, there can’t be much disagreement that it’s needed, that we must do something,” he said.
(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)