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Ticketed teens hit roof, the RMV. Suspensions, ire rise under new law

By Keith O'Brien, Globe Staff | August 15, 2008

With young motorists losing their driver's licenses like never before under a tougher state law targeting teen speeders, state hearing officers are increasingly overwhelmed with desperate youths pleading to keep their licenses.

Hearings at Registry of Motor Vehicles branches statewide are up 20 percent since a 2007 law took effect suspending youths' licenses for 90 days after one speeding ticket. RMV hearing officers, who take up cases after suspensions have been imposed, meet with furious teenagers and parents roughly twice as often as they used to, and they say the private hearings often turn ugly.

There is pouting, there is anger, and arguments often turn to insults. And this is just coming from the parents, hearing officers say. The teenagers, upset over losing their privileges only months after first earning them, have been known to act even worse, cursing hearing officers to their faces.

"Vulgar language - right in front of their parents," said Deana Douville, an RMV hearing officer in Springfield. "That's usually when I end it. I end the hearing at that point. You kind of look at the parents like - I couldn't imagine kids talking in front of their parents like that."

The new law, dubbed the junior operator law, took effect on March 31, 2007, threatening the newest, youngest drivers on the road with a slew of tough penalties. Instead of just paying the fine on a speeding ticket, as they had done in the past, drivers under the age of 18 now have their licenses suspended for a first offense.

In addition to the mandatory 90-day suspension, young drivers also have to pay $500 to reinstate their license and must attend two different training courses at their own cost. Between fines and fees, it can cost young drivers $800 or more just to get their license back, and then, essentially, they have to start all over again, getting a learner's permit and passing a road test before earning another license.

The goal was to reduce the number of teens in fatal crashes, and the early returns suggest the law is working. Fatal crashes fell 37 percent in Massachusetts last year. But one unintended effect of the tougher penalties has been the rise in RMV hearings.

"It's out of control, the number of hearings," said Patricia Brownell, a hearing officer at the Beverly RMV. "It's nonstop."

Young drivers who receive traffic citations can pay their fines without question or appeal to their local clerk magistrate, just like anyone else. The clerks decide whether drivers should be held accountable for their offenses. And if drivers are not satisfied with the ruling, they can appeal to a judge.

It is only when a license is suspended that RMV officials get involved, notifying the driver, via mail, that they have lost their license and are entitled to meet with a state hearing officer. The new junior operator law is not the only reason hearing officers are busier in recent years, handling on average 79 percent more cases per month in 2008 than they did just two years ago. Tougher laws on repeat drunk drivers have also increased the workload.

But for many teenagers new to the responsibilities of driving, the suspensions are a surprise. Though the new law has been widely publicized, and explained in driver's education courses, many people say they did not know their license would be suspended and, therefore, did not appeal their citation to the clerk magistrate. RMV hearings are on the rise, but the number of clerk magistrate hearings statewide fell slightly last year. And so, when teenage drivers and their parents receive word of the suspended license, there is only one person to see: the RMV hearing officer, whose job is mostly to educate drivers about what happens next, not to change what has already happened. No matter how much people may plead with them, the hearing officers are not empowered to overturn suspensions.

"They're angry. 'Why did I come in here? What's your job? What do you do?' " said Maura Mathers, an RMV hearing officer in North Attleborough. "We have to follow the law. And the law tells us we have to suspend, and you have to comply."

It is a message most people do not want to hear. "There's hostility in this office," said Brownell, "from children and adults." They complain about the new junior operator penalties. They contend that the $500 reinstatement fee is too stiff and the suspension harsh. Living without a license, especially in the suburbs, leaves youths stranded, said student James Dexter, 18, whose license has not been suspended.

"Kids have to work," said Dexter, who will be a senior at Danvers High School this fall. "It's just wrong. They should be able to do that. They should be able to give you a warning first."

Parents such as Nick Cappos say they suffer even more. Cappos's youngest daughter, Leah, 17, lost her license in the spring after she was cited for speeding in New Hampshire. Leah, who attends Triton Regional High School in Rowley, said she paid the ticket, believing what happened in New Hampshire would stay there.

But Massachusetts state officials caught up to her, suspending her license and leaving her father, a clam broker, ferrying her wherever she needed to go.

"It's brutal on the parents and it's brutal on the kids because now she's got to get in another little kid's car who doesn't know how to drive," said Nick Cappos. "You think I want my daughter in the front seat with some other little girl who just got her license? No. That's why when she says, 'Daddy, I need a ride,' I'm right there."

But the Cappos family decided to take their punishment quietly. They did not beg or plead at the Beverly RMV after they received notification that Leah had lost her license. Instead, Leah started saving the money she makes as a restaurant hostess. She took the required classes and walked into the Registry one morning this week with $500 cash in hand, ready to have her license reinstated.

"Come on in. Have a seat," Brownell said, all smiles. "What can I do for you today?"

Hearing officers say they know a family is going to create problems when, after being called into the hearing room, the parent begins talking first. Nick Cappos, 51, kept his mouth shut. All he said was "Whoa" as Brownell reiterated that they would need to fork over $500 that day.

There was no cursing or screaming, no anger or insults. Leah Cappos had done everything she needed to do to get her license back, Brownell told her. All she needed to do now was pass her driver's test again.

"But we're going to go slow," Brownell said. "Right?"

The teenager across the desk from her nodded her head yes.
 
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