Inslee signs bill curbing debt-based license suspensions

By Gene Johnson

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee has approved a measure aimed at preventing tens of thousands of people a year from having their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay fines.

An estimated 46,000 people have their licenses suspended annually because they fail to pay court-imposed fines for noncriminal moving violations as minor as neglecting to use a turn signal.

And, once their license is suspended, they can be subject to criminal prosecution if they’re caught driving again.

Activists say that punishes people for being poor, disproportionately affects minority and young drivers, and makes it harder for them to get to work, to take care of sick family members or to get children to school.

Court ruling

Late last month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Department of Licensing to suspend the licenses of indigent drivers for failing to pay fines without first assessing their ability to do so.

“For years, Washingtonians have lost a critical lifeline to jobs merely for being too poor to pay minor traffic fines and fees,” Carl Filler, an analyst with the Justice Action Network, a nonprofit aimed at making the justice system fairer, said in a written statement Monday. “This has pushed families further into debt and negatively impacted their ability to pay the original fines and fees.”

The bill signed by Inslee on Monday eliminates failure to pay fines as a reason for license suspension, though drivers could face suspension if they miss court hearings about their financial circumstances.

It also allows more than 100,000 drivers with currently suspended licenses to get them back by paying a $75 fee.

After the measure takes effect in January 2023, traffic tickets will include an option allowing people to check a box saying they admit the infraction but can’t afford to pay the fine.

Courts will be allowed to waive the fine or put the offender on a payment plan.

Outstanding fines and fees could still be sent to collection agencies.

The measure passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

It was originally supported by a wide array of advocacy groups, but many — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington — pulled their support after determining that amendments adopted in the Legislature watered down the bill too much.

The ACLU urged Inslee to veto most of the bill — all but the part that allowed the reinstatement of licenses currently suspended for failure to pay. The organization argued that continuing to allow suspensions for failure to appear at court hearings was a proxy for debt-based suspensions.

The ACLU, which brought the Thurston County lawsuit last October, also took issue with language in the bill that triggers quicker license suspension for repeat moving violations.

Repeat violations

Under the new law, licenses will be suspended for 60 days if someone commits moving violations on three occasions in a one-year period or four in a two-year period — down from six in a one-year period or seven over two years.

That change could result in more than 20,000 additional license suspensions a year, according to Department of Licensing data.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jesse Salomon of Shoreline, conceded he didn’t like some of the changes but described the measure as a huge win and an improvement over the existing system.

He argued that more strictly linking the suspension of licenses to moving violations would promote public safety.

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