by Jack Russillo
A bill that could alter how people are charged for Washington’s most commonly charged crime sits on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, but how he chooses to sign the bill — or not — could affect how it’s implemented.
Senate Bill 5226 could provide relief and opportunity to thousands of residents 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 failure to pay a fine.
“If you have money, none of this is a problem,” said Mark Cooke, the policy director of the ACLU’s Washington Campaign for Smart Justice. “If you can afford to pay this bill up front, you don’t have to worry about license suspensions.”
Depending on how Inslee decides to sign the bill — which he must do by May 19 — he could either pass the bill as it passed in the state Legislature, veto certain sections of it, or not sign it at all, which would leave the bill to eventually pass as it was written by the legislature. As written, the bill will become law on January 1, 2023.
As the bill worked its way through the legislature, it was not passed in its original form, a factor that Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, who co-sponsored the bill, has had to grapple with since it was passed to the governor’s desk.
“I think that the way it’s structured, it does leave us in a better place,” said Saldaña. “I feel like we had to compromise in the short-term, but it is definitely going to improve and put licenses back in the hands of thousands of people so they don’t have to risk their livelihoods going to work, taking their kids to school, and then having this result in a criminalization of them just because they couldn’t afford to pay their past tickets.”
As it was passed by the legislature, the bill would retroactively allow licenses to be reinstated prior to the effective date of the bill, so it would make it possible for people whose licenses have been suspended in the past to begin the process of retrieving them.
The Department of Licensing (DOL) would not be required to reinstate suspended licenses, but the legislation would open up the process for people to navigate it themselves. Individuals wanting to have their licenses reinstated would still need to pay a reinstatement fee, which could run between $75 and $170, depending on the severity of the infraction. If they are unable to pay for any of the fees in full, licensees would be required to submit proof of their inability to pay and would have the option to enter into a payment plan — which could result in additional fees — or perform community service.
Additionally, someone who has received an infraction now has 30 days — an increase from 15 previously — to respond.
“I think it’s good that there’s this potential way for people to get their licenses back, but it’s unclear how that would actually work in practice,” said Cooke. “A lot of it would be put on the individuals to figure out for themselves versus the DOL doing something affirmatively to get these people their licenses back.”
Another set of changes to the bill — sections seven and eight, which were added in an “eleventh hour amendment” by Sen. Annette Cleveland, according to Cooke — would change the existing law for when a license can be suspended for multiple moving violations in a one or two year period, based on how many instances of moving violations a person accumulates in a calendar year versus how many individual infractions they commit. If signed into law as it is currently written, the changes could result in more than 22,000 new suspensions for Washington drivers, according to a fiscal note from the DOL. The punishment for this law change would not add more fees, but instead it would result in a mandatory safe-driving course and a time-limited, probationary suspension instead of an indefinite suspension.
“This Cleveland amendment — it just went too far,” said Cooke. “We think that it really expanded the failure-to-appear category, and it’s just a new failure-to-pay category, and it doesn’t meet the bottom-line goal of no more debt-based suspensions … Now, it’s just if you fail to appear at any hearing related to the moving violation, then you can have a suspension. And we think there’s a couple of ways where those appearance issues are really just going to be about a person’s ability to pay again.”
According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the current bill “creates a dangerous precedent for other states,” and if adopted, “will make Washington an outlier among states committed to reform.”
“Our goal is to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions because it’s a harmful practice,” said Cooke. “We believe it’s counterproductive. I imagine that it’s a helpful tool to coerce debt payments out of people, but we think that it’s just counterproductive and harmful. And unfortunately, this bill, because of that amendment, no longer meets that basic goal of ending debt-based license suspensions.”
In a letter to Inslee, ACLU-WA’s legislative director Erik Alfaro Gonzalez urged the governor to veto all sections of the bill as passed by the legislature except for section 11, which would allow the DOL to reinstate licenses that have been suspended for failing to pay a moving-violation fee. Passing only section 11 would only change the law by opening up avenues for people to get their licenses back, but passing the rest of the bill, including sections seven and eight, would only alter the circumstances in which people can have their licenses suspended for failing to pay off their debts without eliminating debt-based suspensions.
“Section 11 is a good piece of standalone legislation and would authorize the DOL to immediately let over one hundred thousand people get their licenses back if they pay a fee,” said Alfaro in his letter.
“Good things happen when people are licensed,” added Alfaro in the letter. “It allows them to get to work and transport their families, it prevents them from getting caught in the criminal legal system via DWLS3 charges and allows them to maintain liability insurance. This should be the State’s policy approach in general — no license suspensions to coerce debt-payments. Legislation can be better tailored in future sessions to address things like payment plans and the proper way to fund local government operations.”
In October 2020, ACLU-WA filed a lawsuit against the 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 claimed that the automatic and mandatory license suspensions violate the right to due process and equal protection guaranteed by the State constitution and that the citations were “an unconstitutionally excessive punishment.”
On Friday, April 30, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the mandatory license suspension law violates the State constitution’s right to due process. The case is still active.
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.
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