Thurston County Superior Court Rules Washington Driver’s License Suspension Law Unconstitutional

ACLU Washington — On Friday, April 30, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson ruled that Washington’s law authorizing automatic and mandatory license suspensions for unpaid moving violation fines without meaningful evaluation of the driver’s ability to pay the fine violates the state constitution’s right to due process.

The ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit in October on behalf of individuals who have had their driver’s licenses suspended by the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) because they were unable to pay fines and fees for moving violations. 

Lisa Nowlin, ACLU of Washington Staff Attorney, had this reaction:

“Inability to pay because of poverty should never be a reason to suspend a license and the state cannot punish people simply for being poor. We are thrilled that today’s ruling makes that clear.

We are still considering the implications of the judge’s ruling, which could be appealed by DOL, but, for now, the court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for the Department of Licensing to continue to apply the state’s current license suspension practices to indigent drivers.”

The plaintiffs in the case have suffered a variety of negative consequences due to the loss of their driver’s licenses—consequences that individuals with the financial means to pay traffic fines would not face. These include loss of employment and income; the inability to take children to school; and the inability to care for family members. These additional barriers compound the root problems that make it difficult for people with low or no income to pay fines and fees.

The ACLU of Washington is also advocating for legislative reforms to end the use of debt-based license suspensions. Legislation passed this session, ESSB 5226, is currently awaiting action by the Governor. This legislation would continue to permit debt-based license suspensions. Advocates have asked the Governor to veto the legislation, except for the portion that allows people to have their licenses reinstated.  

The plaintiffs are represented by Donald Scaramastra, Eryn Karpinski Hoerster and Kelly Mennemeier of Foster Garvey PC; Hathaway Burden of Summit Law Group PLLC, and Lisa Nowlin, Mark Cooke and John Midgley of the ACLU of Washington.

For case documents and more information, visit www.aclu-wa.org/cases/pierce-et-al-v-dol.

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