Bill backed by Bremerton state senator looks to end ‘driving while poor’ law

Kitsap Sun article by Austen Macalus

Hundreds of thousands of Washington state drivers see their license suspended because they can’t pay a traffic ticket. Critics of the law call it “driving while poor.”

State lawmakers are now looking to put an end to the practice with a proposal in the Legislature this session. The measure, Senate Bill 5226, is sponsored Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton. It would prevent drivers’ licenses from being suspended because a person failed to pay or respond to a traffic infraction.  

Currently, drivers who receive a moving violation, such as for speeding or running a stop sign, can either pay the ticket or appear in court to contest it. If they don’t pay up or show up to the court hearing, the state Department of Licensing can suspend their driver’s license and send the debt to a collections agency. 

People who continue to drive despite their suspended license can be charged with driving on a suspended license in the third degree  a misdemeanor that can carry an additional fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.

It’s the most commonly charged crime in the state. A 2017 report from the state Attorney General’s Office found about 190,000 people had their licenses suspended for failing to pay.  Suspended licenses account for one-third of prosecutors’ caseload, according to the Legislature’s report on the bill

Advocates of the bill, which has bipartisan backing in the state Senate and support from the American Civil Liberties Union, say the existing law unfairly punishes people who are poor and disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Nat Jacob, a public defense lawyer in Port Townsend, said the system forces low-income people into a downward spiral in which they fall further behind on paying their fines. Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

“The current law doesn’t just disproportionately affect the poor, it exclusively affects the poor because it criminalizes conduct that has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with a person’s ability to pay,” Jacob said at a public hearing on the bill earlier this month. 

Jacob says license suspensions make up a sizable portion of his work — what he estimates is more than 150 of the 400 or so cases he works on in a given year. 

While many middle-income people can simply pay off a traffic ticket, Jacob said that’s not possible for those who don’t have the money to do so. It results in the main mode of transportation to be taken away for many, which hinders them from doing everyday tasks.

“If you don’t have your license how are you supposed to pick up your kid from school? How are you supposed to get a job and hold down a job so you can pay your court fees? How are you supposed to move your car if you are homeless and need to move the car?” he asked.

Senate Bill 5226, Jacob noted, only deals with license suspensions for people who can’t pay fines, not public safety issues. More severe offenses, like driving under the influence or reckless driving, carry higher criminal charges and result in license suspensions.

‘It compounds people’s struggles’

It started with a minor traffic ticket. But because Renee Kimball and her husband weren’t able to pay, it had cascading effects that lasted more than a decade.

Kimball, among those who testified in support of Senate Bill 5226, says she and her husband have struggled with the debt-based license suspensions since the mid-1990s. 

Their licenses were repeatedly suspended, fee after fee starting racking up and the couple fell further and further into debt, Kimball said. The family, who was living in Seabeck at the time, had no other choice but to drive to the grocery store or work, despite their suspended license.

“Living in Seabeck you really had to drive, you had to drive to do everything,” said Kimball, 56, who now lives in Port Orchard. “We all wanted to pay our tickets.” 

In a small community like Kitsap, Kimball said, the police knew her vehicle and they knew the status of her license. She was frequently pulled over, often just down the road from her house, adding even more tickets and fines to her case.

“Leaving your driveway you were really scared. Because at the bottom of your driveway maybe a mile away you’re going to get pulled over,” she said. 

Kimball said the couple’s house went into foreclosure, they had trouble finding jobs and her car was impounded several times. The debt eventually totaled about $30,000. It wasn’t until a few years ago that she finally regained her license. 

Savannah Sly, an organizer with the ACLU of Washington, says Kimball’s story reflects that of many other Washingtonians who face snowballing consequences from an unpaid ticket. Some people were forced to choose between paying a ticket and paying for groceries or rent.

“That’s not really a choice,” Sly said. 

“It compounds people’s struggles because they have increased debt,” Sly said. “This destabilizes people or it prevents people from achieving the stability they are striving for.”

The ACLU sued the Department of Licensing for suspending drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines, arguing that the system unconstitutionally favors rich people and takes away low-income people’s right to drive, the Seattle Times reported.  

Randall, the bill sponsor, said license suspensions are especially troublesome for people in non-urban areas like Kitsap County that don’t have robust public transportation systems. “It makes it impossible for people to go to work and pay back their fees,” she said. 

Those opposed to the new bill say it takes away necessary accountability and incentives for people to pay their traffic tickets, resulting in a drop of revenue for the state. 

“This bill removes all incentive for people to pay their fines eliminating all personal accountability for violating traffic safety laws,” Kelsi Hamilton, with the Washington Collectors Association, said at the hearing. “Many violators only pay their fines if there’s a consequence related to nonpayment.”

But Randall says the current system adds more fees and makes it that much harder for people to pay the fines, in turn, destabilizing low-income people instead of helping them get back on their feet.

“We’re not getting rid of the accountability measures across the board. We are recognizing that not giving someone the opportunity to pay off their fees is not beneficial to anyone,” she said.

Twelve other states have eliminated debt-based license suspension failure to pay, including Oregon and California. In Washington state, the bill would not only end the practice but also authorize the licensing department to reinstate all drivers’ licenses suspended under that law. 

Jacob and other supporters of the proposed measure say it will not only provide a pathway for people to get their licenses back but will also keep people out of the criminal justice system altogether.

“If this bill passes it’s going to have immediate positive impacts on hundreds of thousands Washington residents,” he said. “This is something that for us is a no-brainer.”

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