Massachusetts driving records private under driver’s license law

The state department of transportation will no longer release driving records to the public after the implementation of an immigrant driver’s license law this summer, which has given the agency cover to deny records requests for the documents.

The records were considered public and easily accessible from MassDOT before July 1, the start date of the driver’s license law, which provides a pathway to legal driving for immigrants who can provide some form of documentation.

But language included in the law bars the state from releasing any information related to a Massachusetts license holder. The statute says the information shall “neither be a public record nor disclosed by the registrar, except as authorized by regulations promulgated by the attorney general.”

The Herald requested on Aug. 21 all city councilors’ and Mayor Michelle Wu’s driving records to test whether the documents remained publicly accessible under the new law. In a letter Thursday, MassDOT Records Access Officer William Doyle denied the request, citing the state’s statutory exemption to the records law.

Access to driving records have long provided the public insight into state and local officials’ conduct on the road, including when Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara crashed into a Jamaica Plain home.

Supporters of the license law, which they dubbed the Work and Family Mobility Act, have said it is necessary to keep the information of a Massachusetts driver private to protect their immigration status, or lack thereof.

Attorney Brian Simoneau, an expert in RMV affairs, said he “totally wholeheartedly” supports protecting someone’s immigration status but pointed out the information is not found on driving records that the RMV can now withhold.

Simoneau said it has been frustrating as a lawyer to not be able to access clients’ driving records, which “makes it very difficult to represent a client when you don’t know their history.” Customers can access their own records online through the RMV, but Simoneau said the process can be cumbersome and labor intensive at times.

“There’s no need for this because a person’s immigration status or lack of status is not reflected on his or her driving record,” Simoneau told the Herald. “I don’t think the refusal to release these driving records impacts the purpose of the WFMA. It still maintains the privacy of the person’s immigration status. So I don’t think that there’s a need for this.”

The driver’s license law allows residents without lawful proof of presence in the United States to seek out a driver’s license from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The law-enforcement backed law has been hailed by supporters as a way to make sure all drivers are insured and road safety is taught to all motorists.

Those who are in the U.S. without legal status — people whose visas have expired or who crossed the border illegally, among others — can obtain a standard, five-year Massachusetts driver’s license if they provide at least two documents proving their identity and date of birth.

The law says driving records could be released if regulations allow for their dissemination.

But rules drafted by Attorney General Andrea Campbell and implemented this summer “do not alter [the law’s] resumption that ‘information provided by or relating to the holder of a Massachusetts license issued under section 8 of said chapter 90’ may no longer be treated as public records,” Doyle wrote.

Simoneau said there is “a way to fix this.”

“It can be rectified by the enactment of a regulation by the Attorney General’s Office to allow third party access to these records,” he said.

Doyle said some have already attempted to appeal a denied request for driving records.

In an Aug. 31 letter, the Secretary of State’s supervisor of records cemented the use of the statutory exemption to the public records law as a reason to withhold driving records.

“A governmental entity may use the statutory exemption as a basis for withholding requested materials where the language of the exempting statute relied upon expressly or necessarily implies that the public’s right to inspect records under the public records law is restricted,” the letter said. “… I find that MassDOT may permissibly withhold the requested records from disclosure.”

AG Andrea Campbell (Herald file photo)

Nancy Lane/Boston Herald

AG Andrea Campbell (Herald file photo)

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