A coalition of activists will launch a petition drive on Tuesday urging the legislature to close a loophole in Maryland’s felony automatic-clearing law.
Now in its 14th year, the felony auto-erasing law lets people with felony convictions obtain new commercial drivers licenses if they have been protected under the Public Safety Act for at least a year and forno no more than three months.
About $80 million in fees charged by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration goes toward paying for the offense-elimination program. The law bars any criminal history from prohibiting a person from being hired as a driver or other potential employer.
But the law does not require active protection status for one year before the DMV opens a car license renewal request to further review, the legislation’s sponsor, Del. Eric Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, says.
That opens the door for people who were never formally protected to try again — even after repeated violations, such as drink driving, will have already wiped a record clear, Bromwell said.
Bromwell and other activists want a legislative fix to clear the “grey” area in the law — which is why he is leading the first annual petition drive to open up a bill he will introduce this session.
“That’s irresponsible,” Bromwell said. “I’m concerned that someone who has made a mistake, who has complied with their community and whose community is behind them, could end up making another mistake when they don’t need to.”
Criminal justice officials have voiced concerns about the restriction for unclear reasons, including that it might violate the separation of powers doctrine, said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, policy and advocacy manager for Maryland Domestic Violence Hotline.
The advocacy group Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has also raised concerns with the law.
The state Bar Association backed legislation in 2014 to require a “prior employment” protection status before an application for a license could be fully reviewed, according to Bromwell.
In 2015, the Attorney General’s Office declined to include a provision on protections for people with histories that changed with employment, according to a report released by Maryland Legal Aid.
Bromwell and other activists gathered signatures for a petition drive last session, but they did not manage to get the necessary number of signatures.
Under their proposal, drivers with felony auto-erasing convictions could apply for a renewal a year before the DMV would review a renewal request. At that point, anyone still in protection status would be automatically sent to the agency to re-examine the application.
In 2015, the governor’s chief of staff told The Washington Post that while the auto-erasing law was important, it needed the governor’s support to “give it full steam ahead.”
“If you can do it right, it’s a tremendous benefit to a lot of people,” said Jeffrey Roorda, the union’s vice president. “But you have to have the governor’s support to make the proposal meaningful.”
Roorda described the petition as “a referendum on a narrow policy because that’s the relationship we have to the legislature.”
The Maryland Commission on Criminal Justice Reform raised concerns over the state bar association’s report in 2015. “There is a concern that the limitation on criminal history reporting would constrain the commission from considering all the parole and sentence revocations of history relevant to the petition,” the report said.
“This is a problem,” Bromwell said. “This is a problem we should not have, that we would have to cut down for someone who’s been good in their community that they haven’t had their record reviewed.”