Washington law would end license suspension for unpaid fines

AP News story from Feb. 16, 2021.

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) — Lawmakers in Washington state have proposed a measure that would prevent authorities from suspending a driver’s license when a person cannot pay or respond to a traffic ticket.

The measure sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Emily Randall would eliminate the practice of suspending licenses for those who are unable to pay off their traffic infractions, the Kitsap Sun reported Monday.

Currently, drivers who receive a traffic infraction can either pay the ticket or appear in court to contest it. If the driver doesn’t pay or doesn’t contest the infraction in court, the state Department of Licensing can suspend the driver’s license and send the debt to a collections agency.

Those that continue to drive on their suspended license can be charged with a misdemeanor that can result in fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

Twelve other states in the U.S. have enacted similar laws eliminating debt-based license suspension, including Oregon and California.

Suspended licenses account for about 33% of the prosecutorial caseload in Washington state, according to the state legislature.

Proponents of the bill have said the existing law disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

Nat Jacob, a public defender in the state, said the system forces low-income people into a cycle of poverty in which they fall further behind on paying off their debts.

“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.

Those opposed to the bill have said it prevents accountability and strips the incentives needed to make people pay for their traffic tickets, which would result in a decrease in 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.”

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