Wash. Reworking Rules for Suspended Driver’s Licenses

By Liz Jones

Last year, the Washington legislature passed a law that sponsors referred to as “driving while poor”.  The law aims to help people who end up with a suspended license because they failed to pay a traffic ticket.  Now, it’s up to the Department of Licensing to decide which traffic violations no longer warrant a suspension.  A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Some backers of the law say DOL’s current proposal comes up short.

In Washington state, your driver’s license can be suspended for about 70 different reasons. Some are major, like drunk driving.

Others are more minor, like driving in the H-O-V lane or failing to dim your headlights. In those types of cases, your license is suspended until you pay the ticket.

Stearns: “It is a poverty penalty. There’s no question about it.”

Travis Stearns is with the Washington Defender Association.

Stearns: “The vast majority of the folks who get suspended licenses are folks who cannot pay simply because they are in a position to not be able to pay.”  Stearns' group represents attorneys and public defenders who work with poor clients.

He says the ticket fees and fines can add up to hundreds of dollars. But that’s only part of the potential cost.  People who drive with a suspended license can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Stearns: “A crime stays on your record and makes it harder for you to get housing, harder for you to find employment and really all sorts of other collateral consequences.”

The state also estimates reducing these criminal court cases could save millions of dollars a year. The bill passed the legislature last year by a large majority.  It’s now up the Department of Licensing to revise the list of violations that result in a suspension.

Its current proposal eliminates suspensions for several non-moving violations, like failure to pay parking tickets or renew your tabs.  But Stearns sees more non-safety related violations to trim, like driving in the HOV lane or failure to dim your headlights. Those are still included.  The Department of Licensing plans to have the new rules in effect by June.

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