Minor out-of-state traffic tickets leading to major headaches for Mass. drivers

Minor out-of-state traffic tickets leading to major headaches for Mass. drivers

Some cautionary advice for Massachusetts drivers who may be heading out of state to join family and friends for Thanksgiving: think twice before pleading guilty to a seemingly minor traffic offense in another state.

25 Investigates found the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles is treating some ordinary offenses from other states like criminal offenses here in Massachusetts, leading to hundreds of license suspensions across the state in recent months.

“There has been an explosion of these cases,” said David Yannetti of the Yannetti Criminal Defense firm. “In Massachusetts, because it's a civil infraction, you would call it admitting responsibility. So, these civil tickets that are being paid in other states, they're not really admitting guilt. They're saying, ‘OK I'm responsible.’ But it's a different standard and Massachusetts is treating them like criminal convictions when they are not.”

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The RMV has been clearing a massive backlog of out-of-state violations since admitting, over the summer, that the agency allowed notices from across the country to pile up for more than a year. That has led to hundreds of license suspensions for tickets that would normally not trigger a suspension in the state they were written.

“We, in Massachusetts, have some draconian rules and regulations with regard to the suspension of licenses that, I think, a lot of other states don't have,” added Yannetti.

James Carlson says his "jaw dropped" when he got a notice from the RMV this past September informing him his license had been suspended for 60 days for a ticket he received in New Jersey over the summer.

“I thought it was a joke. I had to re-read it over 10 times and my jaw dropped. I was like there is no way,” said Carlson. “This is my first ticket ever and within just barely over the limit.”

Carlson and his wife were visiting friends on the Jersey Shore over Labor Day weekend when he says, a police officer stopped him for speeding in a 25 mile per hour zone. But instead of a speeding ticket, the officer wrote Carlson a careless driving violation, said the Boston resident.

“The way he verbalized it was that this is basically just a normal speeding ticket,” Carlson told 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel. “You just have to be just over the speed limit. It's the lowest tier as it was explained to me.”

Massachusetts does not have a careless driving law on the books, so the RMV interprets careless driving as reckless driving, which is considered a criminal offense in Massachusetts.

Carlson decided to appeal the reckless driving suspension and took his case before the RMV Board of Appeals. But, by the time he got a hearing date, he had already served 38 days of his 60-day suspension.

Careless driving is one of the most common tickets issued in New Jersey and is often described as a “catch-all” penalty. It is considered a petty offense and carries an $85 fine and 2 points on your license.

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25 Investigates reviewed four years’ worth of RMV data and found only 23 states report careless driving convictions to Massachusetts.  Those reports have triggered 431 suspensions since 2016.

Nearly half of all careless driving suspensions in Massachusetts are from New Jersey, and, so far this year, the number has more than double compared to 2018.

According to Yannetti, the big increase correlates with the way Massachusetts classifies the offenses.

“There are some states where if you go more than 10 miles over the speed limit, they classify that as improper driving or careless driving when all it means is you were going too fast,” said Yannetti. “It’s basically a speeding ticket. But putting that [reckless driving] stamp on it can trigger the 60-day suspension in Massachusetts for the criminal offense of operating to endanger.”

After learning of his 60-day suspension, the court administrator of the New Jersey town where Carlson received his careless driving ticket allowed him to retract his guilty plea and instead plead guilty to a different moving violation, one that would not trigger a suspension in Massachusetts.

“[New Jersey] walked me through how to retract the guilty plea, and they refunded the $85 ticket,” said Carlson. “For Massachusetts to continue down this road on something I have technically not be convicted of because it’s an open ticket, it’s trampling on my constitutional rights.”

Carlson eventually did get his license back, after New Jersey allowed him to change his plea.

In an email, an RMV spokesperson told 25 Investigates:

The Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) applies suspensions reciprocally for out-of-state violations based upon the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) Code dictionary. Violations are associated to these codes and shared amongst states.  If a state transmits to us a code that we suspend for, we apply the 60-day suspension.
Massachusetts law, Chapter 90 Section 22(c), dictates that the RMV treat the out-of-state conviction as if it happened here in Massachusetts for purposes of suspension. A customer appealing the 60-day automatic suspension before the Board of Appeal may be persuasive in their presentation of facts to the Board to convince them the event that occurred in the other state should not be equivalent to a suspend-able offense in Massachusetts.