PITTSFIELD — Every week, Michael Ciaburri drives himself to the Brien Center for therapy sessions to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder that stems from time he served with the Marines in Iraq.
But in August, the Pittsfield man received a letter from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, notifying him that his license had been suspended.
Turns out, it was a clerical error, but the damage was done.
What ensued was six weeks of headaches, dozens of phone calls to agencies in multiple states, and Ciaburri had to rely on shuttle services to get to his counseling appointments.
"This is criminal what they're doing to me," Ciaburri said one recent afternoon. "It's causing me major anxiety because I do have some panic disorder related to travel."
More than 1,600 Massachusetts drivers have had their licenses suspended in the past three months, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the RMV. And while many of those suspensions were justified, some, as in Ciaburri's case, were not.
The wave of suspensions comes as a result of policy change at the RMV, which is addressing a yearslong backlog of out-of-state driving violations. The backlog was discovered in the wake of a crash in June in New Hampshire that, according to authorities, left seven bikers dead after they were struck by a Massachusetts truck driver who should not have been driving.
The driver, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, of West Springfield, had been charged with OUI in Connecticut a month earlier, but the Massachusetts RMV did not act on the notification it received from the neighboring state. He is facing motor vehicle homicide charges in the New Hampshire crash.
Massachusetts RMV head Erin Deveney resigned over the case, and the registry began working to restore its record keeping.
"The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles is conducting an unprecedented review of all the 5.2 million active drivers' records against the National Driver Register in the interest of public safety, and to ensure that Massachusetts records are up to date and accurately reflect respective out-of-state violations," Judith Reardon Riley, a spokeswoman for MassDOT, said in an emailed statement.
Ciaburri, 51, got his license back Thursday, thanks to the help of state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
Farley-Bouvier said Ciaburri and several other Berkshire County residents erroneously have been swept up in the RMV initiative. Even though records scattered in courthouses across the country eventually showed that Ciaburri and another one of her constituents were allowed to drive, it never should have been their burden to prove, she said.
"It was a bureaucratic nightmare for these individuals, under the guise of public safety," said Farley-Bouvier, who worked with both men to get back their licenses. "It shouldn't have been this hard to correct it."
Tracked to a typo
The suspension letter that Ciaburri received in August cited a 1989 operating under the influence charge, to which he had pleaded guilty, from when he was stationed in North Carolina.
He completed all the court requirements to get back his license more than two decades ago, and so he thought the letter was some sort of scam.
His parents, who were visiting at the time, encouraged him to look into it further, and he learned that the notice was, in fact, legitimate. He tried to call North Carolina's motor vehicles department, but without a local driver's license, he was unable to navigate the automated phone system.
Then he waited in line for several hours for a hearing at the RMV in Springfield, but was told that he had to handle the issue with the North Carolina agency.
That's when he turned to Farley-Bouvier.
"She's been fighting with Mass. [RMV], MassDOT, on the phone with North Carolina," Ciaburri said.
Through making dozens of phone calls, Farley-Bouvier was able to track the suspension to a North Carolina courthouse, where a clerk inadvertently had made two files for Ciaburri. In one file, his name was spelled correctly; in the other, it wasn't.
So, while the correct file reflected that Ciaburri had completed the requirements to have his licence restored, the other remained open and unresolved, Farley-Bouvier said.
That discrepancy bubbled up when the RMV began using the National Driver Registry.
"When I was finally able to talk to somebody in North Carolina, they were able to see, indeed, it was an error that somebody made," Farley-Bouvier said.
Ciaburri said he regrets ever driving drunk but that he never has had more than a speeding ticket since that charge. After handling his criminal case in North Carolina, he has made sure to stay out of trouble.
This summer, Farley-Bouvier assisted another constituent who also had inexplicibly lost his license.
Patrick Doyle, a heavy equipment operator for MassDOT, was renewing his commercial driver's license and planning a family trip to Canada when a local RMV employee informed him that his license had been suspended.
The employee said that a man with the same name, including his middle initial, had gotten into trouble in Pennsylvania and he needed to clear up the issue before his license could be renewed.
Doyle, of Pittsfield, never has lived or spent time in Pennsylvania, but he quickly tried to get on the phone with its state office.
"I called six or seven times in a period of probably three weeks," Doyle said. "I finally called Tricia. She got the ball rolling."
During this time, Doyle had to inform his boss at MassDOT, which oversees the RMV, that he couldn't operate heavy machinery, the primary function of his job.
He relied on a co-worker to drive him to work at the Pittsfield office for two months, until his license eventually was reinstated.
"I think I paid the price for all the accidents out there," Doyle, 58, said Thursday, from a MassDOT facility in Sheffield.
"The punchline is, he was at risk of losing his job and his employer is the exact same agency who took his license away," Farley-Bouvier said.
Most of the time, when residents turn to their state representative for help, they already have tried every other option themselves and are desperate, Farley-Bouvier said. In her eight years in politics, she has taken on many constituent cases. This one, though, took more time than all of her other cases combined, she said.
"I had nowhere else to turn," Doyle said of contacting Farley-Bouvier. "There's obviously no way I could have gotten it back myself."
Farley-Bouvier wonders how many other innocent drivers across the state have been penalized under the RMV's sweeping review.
She knows the two men aren't the only drivers in Berkshire County who have been affected.
In August, state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, was contacted by a man who had his license suspended because of criminal activity that occurred in 1997 in Florida.
It turned out, Barrett said, that the man had the same name and birthday as a man in Florida with a suspended license.
It took three weeks to prove that the North County man, who Barrett didn't identify by name, should have his license reinstated, he said.
"They took his license; it impacted his working," Barrett said. "He had the burden of proving it wasn't him."
Barrett said that he has been seeing mix-ups like these long before the RMV review began this summer.
While Ciaburri's case was a result of the ongoing National Drivers Registry review, Doyle's issue was not, according to MassDOT.
When Doyle went to renew his license, the renewal didn't process because of the Pennsylvania violation and he was required to address the issue there. That has been a long-standing practice, according to MassDOT.
Still, Farley-Bouvier said the efforts made to address the RMV backlog lack "common sense."
"The bureaucrats in Boston have no sense at all about what it's like to live without a license in Berkshire County. You can't just hop on the 'T,' " she said, referring to the local train service.
"I felt sorry for these workers with the [RMV] because they were afraid for their jobs. Everybody could see from the records where these errors were, but nobody would correct them."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.