Al Lepera opened the envelope from the Registry of Motor Vehicles in April to find a citation for driving without an inspection sticker, which could cost him as much as $1,000 in fines and insurance surcharges.
He knew he was taking a chance when he drove the car stickerless for a couple of days. But he believed the mechanic who pledged he would back him up if he was stopped by police.
Because of a sensor glitch in his rebuilt Subaru engine, the car would have to be driven for a couple hundred miles before the sensor would begin to work correctly and the exhaust system could be tested, the mechanic told him.
Problem is, Lepera never had the chance to ask police for a break because he was never stopped. Turns out that an eagle-eyed state trooper spotted the expired sticker when he drove past him on Route 9, and a citation was issued remotely.
While the law allows for remotely issued citations, it also allows drivers to challenge them at a hearing. Lepera demanded a hearing and mailed a check for $25 to cover the cost.
“I just wanted my day in court,” said Lepera, 65, of Newton, who worked in real estate. “I wanted to give my side of the story.”
It’s important to understand the timing in this case. To get a hearing, you need to request it within 20 days of the alleged infraction.
The officer claimed he caught a glimpse of the expired sticker at 1:47 p.m. on April 4. (Lepera said he vaguely remembers passing a police detail that day.)
Lepera said he checked the box on the back of the citation requesting a court hearing, signed it, and dated it — April 19. He made a copy for his records. He mailed it at the Newton Corner post office, no later than April 20, he said.
What he expected next was a notice from the Registry with the date and time of a hearing. But instead, the next thing he got in the mail, three weeks later, was a threatening letter from the RMV that threw Lepera into a panic.
“You are hereby notified effective 06/09/18, your motor vehicle registration will be suspended by automatic application of law, because you have defaulted on the assessments and fines noted below,” it said.
Lepera needs his car because he has a part-time job delivering nuclear medicine at night. He told me he has a clean driving record — no tickets and only one accident in the past 30 years.
The RMV letter said that to avoid the registration suspension he needed to pay $110 — a $55 fine, plus a $55 late fee. Lepera jumped online and paid what he owed.
But he still wanted to talk to someone about the hearing he had paid for. He was most worried that the sticker infraction would mar his driving record and put his delivery job in jeopardy.
When he finally got someone on the phone (after a three-hour wait), Lepera explained he had paid the fine out of fear of suspension, even though he wanted to contest the citation.
“You already paid the fine?” he said the RMV person replied.
“That’s an admission of responsibility. You can’t get a hearing now.”
“But the letter doesn’t say anything like that,” Lepera said.
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
Two things bother me about what the RMV did. First, the Registry should have given Lepera a hearing because he mailed his request four days before the deadline. Also, it cashed his $25 check while denying him a hearing.
After I presented everything I knew about Lepera’s case, the RMV said it would refund Lepera’s $110 and schedule a hearing. It even seemed to acknowledge it had made a mistake: “The request for the hearing was received in the mail by the RMV on the 19th day” — one day before the deadline.
So, why was the suspension letter sent on May 10? That’s what I asked in an e-mail to Jacquelyn Goddard of the RMV. Human error? Is there any indication this has happened to others?
I got this perplexing reply: “Please note that the suspension letter did not go out from the RMV to this individual prematurely; the RMV is willing to grant a grace period for this customer.”
Huh? The Registry admits that Lepera requested his hearing on time. Why the need for a “grace period?”
Now that Lepera has publicly embarrassed them, I question whether he can get a fair hearing.
Do the right thing, RMV: Dismiss the citation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the law enforcement agency that issued the citation.