Registry fails to alert local police of trouble drivers, flouts law enacted after 2014 traffic tragedy
After a 20-year-old Sharon woman was struck and killed in 2014 by a driver with a suspended license and a history of traffic violations, the state Legislature required the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to alert local police of troubled drivers in their communities.
But in another administrative failing, the Registry is not regularly sending the notifications of suspensions and revocations as required under the law so that local officers can proactively monitor drivers who were stripped of their licenses for safety reasons, a Globe review of Massachusetts police departments has found.
The spotty compliance by the Registry has created confusion among many police departments and prompted critics to say it is another example of how the agency is failing one of its most basic responsibilities: overseeing the safety of the state’s roads.
“It’s appalling that we fought so hard to get this legislation only to have it not enacted as intended,” said Marc Cremer, the father of the 20-year-old victim, Haley Cremer. “We did this to save lives, and potentially prevent families from going through the tragedy that we live with every day.”
The revelations add to the controversies surrounding the Registry, which is reeling after the deaths of seven people in a crash in late June in New Hampshire, allegedly caused by a truck driver from West Springfield who should have been stripped of his Massachusetts commercial driver’s license.
That failure cost Registrar Erin Deveney her job, and the Baker administration has since revealed that the Registry ignored tens of thousands of alerts from other states about traffic violations by Massachusetts drivers, and also failed to send out its own such notices to other states.
Under what is sometimes known as Haley’s law, the Registry is required to “timely notify” police departments when a resident’s license is suspended or revoked for reasons tied to public safety or criminal conduct, including driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, refusing a chemical test, or, for younger drivers, being convicted of a crime in juvenile court.
The goal is to address flaws in how information about habitual traffic offenders is shared between the Registry and police that were exposed by the death of Haley Cremer. Sharon police were never notified by the Registry that the driver of the car, Jeffrey Bickoff, who had a history of at-fault crashes, had his license suspended at the time. Sharon officials said they might have arrested him had they known about the suspension and spotted him driving.
Both the Globe and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association conducted informal surveys of departments around the state about the Registry’s compliance with Haley’s law and related requirements. For the most part, both surveys found that instead of consistently alerting individual departments, the Registry entered license suspensions and revocations into a statewide database, and then left it to local departments to find that information on their own.
The police chiefs association found that more than two dozen departments said the Registry is not in full compliance with the law; several reported receiving only a smattering of advanced notices from the Registry, ranging in frequency from sporadic to rare.
Eight departments told the Globe that they receive written notices from the Registry about suspensions only in cases in which a driver is considered an immediate threat to public safety. Those notices are mandated under a separate law, the Registry said.
The Hampden Police Department said it doesn’t receive any license suspension or revocations notices from the Registry.
Marc Cremer and the state legislator who authored Haley’s law, Representative Louis Kafka, said they told Registry officials in 2016, after the law’s enactment, that the agency wasn’t following the rules. It appears the agency didn’t change its practice.
“They didn’t comply with the law,” said Kafka, a Democrat from Stoughton. “Hopefully the Registry will now abide by what the letter of the law is and notify all police departments . . . . That would make the roads that much safer.”
A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker declined to comment and directed questions to the Registry.
In a statement, the RMV’s parent agency insisted that it is complying with the law by making the information available through the Criminal Justice Information System, a statewide database that is updated weekly and accessible to local police.
“This system was chosen by RMV because it is an easy-to-use, online system which can securely provide police departments and officers, wherever and whenever they wish, with information about drivers who had their licenses suspended as well as information about vehicles registered to those suspended drivers,” Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the Registry, said in a statement.
MassDOT provided the Globe with a 2015 letter from the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services and two other letters from the Registry in 2016 advising lawmakers and police chiefs of the database system.
However, that process puts the onus on officers to look up suspension and revocation information — causing confusion among some departments.
Some officials who participated in the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association survey said their departments received notifications for a time, but then the alerts stopped. The association declined to identify which individual departments responded to its survey, but expressed concern about the feedback it received.
“When those folks are saying, ‘We’re not getting those anymore,’ then I think there’s a problem,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the association and a former police chief in Northborough. “There is something that isn’t working the way it was intended.”
The Globe received information about the Registry’s compliance from 44 local police departments. Of those, 29 said they receive notifications from the Registry, but it wasn’t clear whether they got every one required by law. Another 10 said they extract the information on their own from the computer database, while five said either they were unsure if they got all required notices or just a subset of those that they are supposed to hand-deliver to drivers.
In Ipswich, Police Chief Paul Nikas said in an interview that his staff downloads license information from the law enforcement database and then enters it manually into a license plate reader system that officers in the field can access.
“It would be nice if they just sent it electronically,” he said of the Registry. “I know they’re overwhelmed, but the law’s the law. You got to figure a way to make it work for the safety of the public. That should be priority number one.”
Avon Deputy Police Chief Denis Linehan said his staff has made pulling suspension and revocations notices from the state database a routine, and they provide that information to officers at roll call.
Cremer said he and Kafka met at the State House with then-registrar Deveney after learning in January 2016 that the Registry was not sending separate warnings to police, but instead uploading the notices to the database. Kafka sent a letter to Deveney expressing his concerns, records show.
“She understood that not pushing it out was not meeting the requirements,” Cremer said.
Deveney, who resigned at the end of June, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The statute is pretty clear,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, whose office prosecuted Bickoff. “It says provide written notice. I don’t think what the Registry is doing qualifies.”
Bickoff was convicted of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation and of reckless assault and battery in 2015 and sentenced to 2½ years in jail.
The Registry is also required to send suspension notices to police departments when drivers have been deemed an immediate threat or were involved in a fatal crash. In those cases, the Registry said, separate procedures call for uploading that information to the CJIS database and providing police departments with a notice that officers are to deliver to the driver by hand.
On Monday, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is scheduled to appear at an oversight hearing by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, which has asked her to provide documents about the Registry’s compliance with the law.
“The Commonwealth is supposed to be proactive in alerting the municipalities,” said state Representative William Straus, House chairman of the committee. “The municipal police departments for most residents are the front line of traffic enforcement and should know who should and who shouldn’t be on the road. It is an additional question mark about the systems that have been set up at the Registry.”