Bill To Replace ‘Driving While Poor’ Law Moves Through State Senate

by Jack Russillo

A bill that could reduce Washington’s most commonly-charged crime is making its way through the state Senate.

The bill would provide relief and opportunity to thousands of residents who have been impacted by the state’s driver’s license suspension policies. “Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree,” or DWLS3, is the least serious crime for driving with a suspended license. The misdemeanor can be charged in a variety of contexts. The most common occurs when a driver receives a ticket for a moving violation, but does not follow through by paying the ticket or showing up in court to contest it. DWSL3 is the state’s most frequently-charged offense, affecting tens of thousands of residents every year solely for not paying a citation.

In October 2020, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) on behalf of multiple individuals who have either accumulated more than $10,000 in fines or have had their licenses suspended for years, or both. The ACLU is claiming that the automatic and mandatory license suspensions violate the state constitution’s right to due process and equal protection and that the citations are “an unconstitutionally excessive punishment.”

“People who have the capacity to pay for their tickets are not more dangerous drivers than people who aren’t able to pay,” said Evan Walker, a policy analyst for the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. “I think that’s the biggest part of this law that is just harming those who don’t have the money to pay their fines and then criminalizing that.”

In Washington, the DOL automatically suspends an individual’s driver’s license if they cannot afford the cost of a moving violation fine or are unable to appear in court to respond to the alleged violation. In some cases, those receiving tickets have as little as 15 days to respond before having their license automatically suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear in court. If that driver is then pulled over by the police they can be arrested and charged with DWLS3. The penalty for DWLS3 is up to a 90-day jail sentence or a fine up to $1,000, or both. Drivers may also face further financial penalties, court time, and incarceration if their fines go unresolved. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies showed that the majority of drivers who have their license suspended for any reason will continue to drive. For some drivers, this leads to repeat offenses and increased fines if they’re pulled over again. 

Along with other transportation laws, DWSL3 has been shown to disproportionately affect BIPOC and low-income populations. Between 2000 and 2009, African American drivers accounted for between 37 and 46% of DWLS3 cases in Seattle Municipal Court, although they comprised less than 8% of the city’s population, according to a report by the ACLU.

“I think that when we look at how the pandemic has been hitting Black and Brown communities, poor communities and rural communities in particular, these are the same communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and they’re the greatest demographic of drivers in the state of Washington,” said Senator Rebecca Saldaña, who represents Washington’s 37th legislative district and is co-sponsoring the bill. “They are the ones that are less equipped financially to see it through and get through this pandemic and so making sure that we’re looking at the places where we can take out a barrier and be able to actually make a policy that is going to improve conditions for Black and Brown and low-wage workers and drivers, that is the kind of policy that we need to be making right now … Once your license is suspended, there are all sorts of repercussions and challenges but, in particular, I think driving while poor should no longer be a reason for a suspension.”

A 2011 study by the Seattle Municipal Court also found uneven geographical distribution across the greater Puget Sound region, noting that, “the highest frequencies of DWLS charges occurred in southeast Seattle, including the communities of Mount Baker, Rainier Beach, Georgetown, First Hill, Beacon Hill, Seward Park, and the Central District,” all communities with larger than average low-income populations.

“I do think that this is part of a larger movement to rectify our legal system,” said Walker. “We do know with the data that we’ve seen that the BIPOC community is disproportionately impacted by these policies and receives higher fines or fees for the same violation. And so I think that this isn’t a be-all, end-all situation by any means, but I do think that this is a part of a larger need and effort to decriminalize poverty. This is questioning how our legal system works and who our legal system is working for and I think that this policy does begin to do that.”

If the bill passes, drivers would no longer have their licenses automatically suspended, which would also decrease the likelihood of incurring more large fines and potential incarceration. The bill would also allow people to renew their license even if they couldn’t pay a citation or appear in court and it would create payment plan options for people who cannot afford the cost of their fines. Further, any person who receives a notice of traffic infraction would have 30 days to respond to the notice, instead of the current 15 days.

“We should figure out a way to actually address the problem but also help people, not just bury them in debt for something as simple as a parking ticket,” said Senator Joe Nguyen, who represents Washington’s 34th legislative district and is also co-sponsoring the bill. “It’s just mind boggling to me that we would risk basically damaging a person’s life for a parking or speeding ticket when if that person was wealthy they could just pay it off. That’s not how our judicial system should work.” (Editor’s Note: According to existing Washington State law, licenses cannot be suspended for parking tickets.)

If enacted, Washington drivers would still be held accountable for dangerous driving under the updated legislation. Drivers would still be required to pay fines and those with three or more moving violations could still have their licenses suspended. Only bad driving would result in license suspension, however, not failure to pay fines. The bill would also not alter laws or punishments related to more serious incidents, like driving under the influence (DUI) offenses.

Fines from DWSL3 violations provide a lot of revenue for public agencies, but they also clog up the judicial system at various stages. DWSL3’s “outsized share of criminal filings diverts the resources of police, courts, prosecutors, and public defenders away from other, more serious crimes. Although it is difficult to calculate precise costs of enforcement, conservative estimates indicate that enforcing DWLS3 costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year,” the ACLU report says.

“We shouldn’t plan on putting people in debt to fund our state agencies,” said Nguyen.

Depending on the year, DWSL3 charges account for more than a third of all case filings in Washington’s district and municipal courts, according to the report. Between 1994 and 2015, DWLS3 was charged 1,441,097 times, resulting in 860,445 convictions, and 3,768,120 jail days sentenced. In its report, the ACLU estimates that enforcing the current DWSL3 law in Washington between 1994 and 2015 cost more than $1.3 billion. In addition, the non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative calculated that in 2015, Washington State Troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with license suspensions for non-driving offenses.

“So many of our judges have really meaningful things to have to spend their time on and the fact that they spend so much time on this really limits their capacity,” said Saldaña. “Hopefully this allows them to be able to focus on so many more important things that come before them. I think the effect on the courts could be huge. I don’t think we’ll know until it’s implemented, but I do really think it can help to make a better use of the limited resources that we have in what I think matters most for more Washingtonians.”

Last year, Oregon passed a bill that prevented people from having their licenses suspended for failing to pay a fee, following the lead of 10 states, including Idaho and California. The recent uptick in legislation against automatic driver’s license suspensions due to unpaid fees has become a national issue. Across the country, more than 10 million drivers have had their licenses suspended because of unpaid court fees.
Washington drivers can check the status of their license here.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 2/22/21 to more specifically describe under what circumstances a person could have their license suspended according to the proposed legislation. In addition, a note was added to a quote from Senator Joe Nguyen to clarify that Washington State law does not allow for license suspension due to unpaid parking tickets.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: Photo by Robert Couse Baker via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

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