JeffCo public defender says suspended license arrests unfairly target the poor

Originally published in the Port Townsend Leader, by Nick Twietmeyer

It’s a law that has been given the nickname “driving while poor” by legal professionals, but at a recent meeting of the Port Townsend City Council’s public safety committee, a local public defender asked for a moratorium on arrests for third-degree driving with a suspended license. 

The letter, written by attorney Richard Davies of Jefferson Associated Counsel, was presented as public comment during the Oct. 26 meeting of the Port Townsend Council Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety and Law Enforcement.

“[Driving while license suspended in the third degree] is committed when your driver’s license is suspended for failing to pay a traffic ticket,” Davies wrote in the letter. “But the injustice is not limited to just the humiliation of being charged with a crime for being poor.”

Davies noted that police actions after an officer stops a driver for third-degree driving with a suspended license can often escalate into searches of people and their vehicles, which can then end with officers discovering drugs and a prosecutor filing felony charges. 

“Never mind that there is an opioid epidemic in this county,” Davies continued. “A DWLS3 arrest can turn a victim of the epidemic into a felon. As a felon, you can’t vote, possess firearms, or get a decent job or quality housing. This is our underclass, and it’s disproportionally BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). And it has to stop.” 

In his letter, Davies said Jefferson Associated Counsel wanted a moratorium on DWLS3 arrests and that all charges be diverted, “giving the person a chance to get their license back.” 

City officials welcomed the suggestion.

But Port Townsend Interim Police Chief Troy Surber said his department has issued 17 citations for third-degree driving with a suspended license in the last year and that only one of those incidents resulted in anything more than a summons to appear in court. 

Surber added that the one person who was taken into custody for the offense was also found to have multiple arrest warrants and was in possession of methamphetamine. 

“I do understand the impact on someone with lower financial options. I get it,” Surber said.

While he understood the financial burden a hefty traffic ticket can put on drivers, if a ticket is too much to pay, repayment plans can be arranged to lessen the sting, Surber said. 

The Port Townsend Police Department doesn’t issue many tickets for traffic violations, he added. 

“We don’t do a lot of suspended driving, we don’t do a lot of traffic [stops],” Surber said. “The number-one thing we do here with traffic is education.”

Surber also said the rate at which Port Townsend drivers receive tickets is “amazingly low.” 

The chief estimated that of all drivers stopped in town for traffic violations, only somewhere between 15 to
18 percent of the stops result in tickets.

Port Townsend City Manager John Mauro echoed Surber’s sentiments but added that the letter from Davies was exactly the sort of input needed by the ad hoc committee.

“Our whole approach with the Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety and Law Enforcement is to provide a forum for us to have a conversation about what our practices are, the changes we can make, the policies that are in place, the policies that should be in place, as a community,” Mauro said. “These are the very things that are the reason why we’re putting focus on law enforcement with that committee.” 

Mauro added that after having a chat with the city attorney and police chief, he too believed that Port Townsend police weren’t in the habit of regularly making arrests of suspended drivers. Mauro added that he was doubtful that officers even cited drivers for the violation with any regularity. 

“We can’t decriminalize something that the state’s made a criminal offense,” Mauro added. “But we can make it a lowest priority. Based on what I know about the team, we’re not out there running traffic stops and looking for suspended drivers.” 

Mauro also said the substance of the letter seemed to indicate an evolution of the conversations taking place within the committee about how modern policing is done. 

“Now we’re getting into a little bit more nuance and detail,” Mauro said. “I think we’re positioning our decision-makers to make policy decisions by the end of this year, into 2021, around this. I think it’s nice to see the sophistication of the conversation come up.” 

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