Ghosts of convictions past

Earlier this year a truck driver was arrested in Connecticut then killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. Now Massachusetts drivers are being punished. Why is it our fault? In the American system of traffic law the punishment precedes the trial.

The truck driver, Mr. Zhukovskyy, was accused of DUI in Connecticut. The arrest was supposed to suspend his commercial driver’s license and personal driver’s license. His license was issued by Massachusetts. Connecticut can only tell him “don’t drive here.” Massachusetts decides if he drives in the other 49 states. Connecticut authorities entered the arrest into a computer system used for commercial licenses. That arrest zipped across the border to Massachusetts where the computer said “WTF? I wasn’t programmed to deal with this.” The report was flagged for manual review. Connecticut also sent a notice by paper mail. It went into a box with all the others.

Neither notice was processed. Then Mr. Zhukovskyy killed seven people. The press found out his license was supposed to have been suspended, not for a conviction but for an accusation. Fingers were pointed. Heads rolled.

Now we have the usual bureaucratic overreaction.

Massachusetts residents had a good deal for a long time. Speeding tickets didn’t usually cross state lines. The state didn’t aggressively check for out of state infractions or license status.

Of course there was the occasional incident. If the RMV happened to find out about some person in another state sharing your name and birth date you could find yourself without a license. Complain and you’d hear the standard bureaucrat’s response: We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the RMV. Walk to Pennsylvania and convince the DMV to give the other person his license back. Driving is a privilege.

Anybody who pulls out the “it’s a privilege” line needs to have her privilege of government employment revoked. The right-privilege distinction has been dead for at least 50 years. A driver’s license can not be revoked for no reason, which is what people mean when they say it’s a “privilege.” And what’s called a “pre-deprivation hearing” is usually required. That means ask questions first, shoot later.

The RMV is determined to overreact. The new boss set out to revoke as many licenses as possible. They are going to dig through records back to the beginning of time if necessary to avoid more unfavorable publicity.

The newspaper in western Massachusetts found some victims. One of them lost his license recently because 30 years ago a court clerk in Georgia misplaced the paperwork saying he had completed probation. Another was the victim of a 20 year old offense by another person with the same name.

This is what happens when you go digging through old records. It’s happened many times before. A clerk enters an old box of tickets into the computer and forgets to enter the corresponding box of receipts. Anybody in a position of responsibility should know it happens. When the boss told staff to go process all driving records he told them to revoke the licenses of innocent people.

If you had been convicted of a regular misdemeanor in the 1980s the system would figure out that you’re no longer meant to be in jail. Driving offenses are different. It’s not just jail time and probation. Most important of all, it’s the money. If you don’t pay your parking tickets, court costs, or license reinstatement fee you will still be off the road long after I’m out of prison for robbing a bank.

We need a time limit on driving records and we need to take the money out of it. I don’t care if the guy down the street was convicted of DUI in Florida in the 1990s and I don’t care if he paid all the fees to get his license back.

In the 1760s William Blackstone famously wrote “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This concept is foreign to traffic law. Risk-averse politicians would rather revoke thousands of licenses without cause than risk one news story blaming them for something they didn’t do.

Governor Baker, this is your fault.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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One Response to “Ghosts of convictions past”

  1. Mikhael says:

    Suspend now ask questions later, exactly what I thought would happen when the news broke. Bureaucratic overreach is a real and present danger to everyone’s Constitutional Rights, idiots kill people everyday with and without licenses. But good luck getting the drooling masses to pay attention that on the news.

    Funny enough just a few months before this whole debacle I did a bit of my own investigation to try and understand exactly how and why minor out of state infractions never make it to the merit rating board. The public records I obtained didn’t reveal much other than a reciprocal agreement with NH. Makes sense now!