Battle with Mass. Registry of Motor Vehicles Highlights Flaws in Public Records Law

Have a public records story you would like to share? Email with your experience trying to obtain information through a state public records law.

By Colman M. Herman

Clark Ziegler’s experience in trying to access public records typifies much of what is still wrong with the Massachusetts Public Records Law, even though it was updated a few years ago.

Ziegler wanted to help his son regarding a matter involving the suspension of his driver’s license by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, an agency that falls under the state’s Department of Transportation. It was at the time that the registry was in the process of trying to clear out a backlog of out-of-state violations since admitting that it had allowed suspension notices from states across the country to go ignored.

In the process, Ziegler’s son, Scott, 29, of Amesbury, had his Massachusetts driver’s license suspended in 2019 with just a few days notice based on a single minor traffic citation he got in New Jersey. Up until then, according to Scott, he had a spotless twelve-year driving record.

Scott requested a hearing, which took a month to get. But meanwhile, he could not drive his car, disrupting his professional and personal lives.

While waiting for the hearing, the elder Ziegler decided to help his son prepare for it. To do that, he filed a public records request with the Massachusetts registry seeking documents that describe the nature of traffic violations reported by the state of New Jersey that are deemed sufficient for the Massachusetts registry to suspend a driver’s license.

But the registry failed to respond. So the elder Ziegler filed an appeal with Rebecca Murray, the supervisor of public records in the secretary of state’s office. The registry blew Murray off as well.

“Despite being notified of the opening of this appeal and a communication from a member of the Public Records Division staff, no response has been provided,” Murray wrote to William Doyle, the registry’s public records lawyer. She ordered the registry to give the elder Ziegler the records he wanted.

Sixty-two days after Ziegler filed his public records request with the Massachusetts registry — now a full month after the hearing took place for which the records were needed — and only after he filed an appeal, did Doyle finally inform Clark that the registry did not have any responsive documents.

“That would mean that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has no written standards for suspending drivers’ licenses based on out-of-state traffic citations, or at least those in New Jersey,” the elder Ziegler says.

Postscript: Son Scott won his appeal, but at that point he was already half way through his suspension.

The delay Clark Ziegler experienced in trying to crowbar loose public records is far from unusual. In fact, filing public records appeals now can be even more time-consuming than under the old public records law, which gave officials 10 calendar days to respond to public records requests. The new law expanded the time frame to 10 business days, even more under certain circumstances.

When an appeal is filed with the supervisor of public records, she now has 10 business days to issue an order, and almost always gives the public official 10 business days to comply with her order. Meanwhile, a total of 30 business days has already gone by. And the process could drag on for months more because it is not unknown for officials to ignore the supervisor’s order.

Colman M. Herman is a freelance writer and reporter living in Boston.

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