SEATTLE — Lawmakers in Washington state are moving ahead with a bill that aims to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets — despite opposition from some of the activists who pushed for the change in the first place.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other groups say it’s important to stop arresting and prosecuting people for so-called “driving while poor,” but that an amendment added just before the measure passed the Senate last month creates a problematic loophole.
“It waters the legislation down so much that it no longer meets our goal, which is to end debt-based license suspensions in Washington,” said Mark Cooke, policy director of the ACLU of Washington's Campaign for Smart Justice.
The amendment, by Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, requires people to have their license suspended if they fail to appear in court — a provision law enforcement organizations suggested was needed to promote respect for the courts. For example, if a judge schedules a hearing to inquire as to why someone can't pay the ticket, and the person fails to show up, their license would be suspended.
Opponents of the amendment argue that suspending a license because someone failed to appear in court in such cases is merely a proxy for debt-based suspension. They want the House to undo the Senate's change or decline to pass the bill.
“This bill still punishes people who are not able to pay,” Priya Sarathy Jones, of the national Free to Drive Campaign, testified at a Washington House Transportation Committee hearing last week. “It just creates a different pathway to do it.”
The House Transportation Committee passed the bill 24-5 Friday, sending it to the House Rules Committee on its way to the floor.
The sponsor of the bill, Democratic Sen. Jesse Salomon of Shoreline, concedes he doesn’t like the amendment, but he argues the measure is nevertheless a “huge win” and a vast improvement over the existing system. It would reinstate the licenses of 64,000 people who currently have suspended licenses, he said, and it would block license suspensions for, on average, 46,000 people a year going forward.
“You will no longer be suspended for inability to pay — that's the bottom line," Salomon said at the hearing last week.
Further, he said, it’s unlikely that judges would drag people into court to inquire as to why they haven't paid off their tickets: “It doesn't make sense to bring people back over and over for $200 or $300.”
The most commonly prosecuted crime in Washington is third-degree driving while license suspended, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The crime covers those who keep driving after having their licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets or failing to show up for court hearings, but not those whose licenses are suspended for more serious offenses, such as drunken driving.
Advocates have long argued that the crime punishes people for being unable to pay and disproportionately hurts people of color. Because many people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets must continue driving to get to work to pay their bills, they risk criminal conviction.
Many jurisdictions already offer payment plans to help those who can't afford to pay, and some have largely stopped prosecuting it due to the burden the cases impose on the criminal justice system.
Under the bill, traffic citations would include a box which drivers can check to indicate they are unable to pay the fine. It would require courts to agree to payment plans for drivers who request them. To offset lost revenue, it would increase traffic infraction fees by $6 and driver's license fees by $1.
It would also require 60-day license suspensions for anyone who commits traffic infractions on three separate occasions in a one-year period, or on four occasions in a two-year period. People would have to complete a safe-driving course before getting their license back.
In the past three years, 15 states have ended the practice of suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay, but none have provisions like the amendment added in the Senate, Sarathy Jones said.
Some advocacy groups, including Latino Civic Alliance, continue to support the bill despite the amendment.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, noted that bills aiming to end debt-based license suspension have been introduced in the Legislature for at least a decade without success. Adding the amendment to this year's version ensured bipartisan support in the Senate and improved its prospects in the House, he said Friday.
If it proves to be a problem in the future, the Legislature can revisit the issue, he said.
“The system has been broken for a really long time,” Pedersen said. “My job was to come up with a solution to this problem, this fundamental issue of criminalizing poverty, that can get to the governor's desk this session.”