Lawmakers must change unjust driver’s license suspension policies

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Lawmakers must change unjust driver’s license suspension policies

Current policies endanger public safety and entrap residents in a cycle of debt and economic hardship

By Evan Walker, policy analyst, and Andy Nicholas, senior policy fellow - November 30, 2020

This blog post is the first in a series on debt-based driver’s license suspensions.

Millions of Washingtonians rely on a valid driver’s license to drive to work (at this time, primarily as essential workers), take a family member to the doctor, and perform other daily living tasks. Yet under current law, thousands of residents each year have this essential asset suspended simply because they cannot afford to pay a citation for a moving violation like failing to come to a complete stop at an intersection. Being unable to pay minor traffic citations forces too many people to risk offenses that carry much higher costs by driving on a suspended license in order to keep jobs and afford the basics. These excessive penalties disproportionately impact people experiencing poverty and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color needlessly, and inequitably entangle them in the criminal legal system.

Lawmakers in Washington state need to follow the lead of our neighbors in California, Oregon, and Idaho, who have ended these damaging practices and laws. They should also apply these reforms retroactively and restore driver’s licenses to those who have had theirs unjustly suspended.

In our state, the Washington State Department of Licensing will automatically suspend a resident’s driver’s license if they cannot afford the cost of a moving violation or are unable to appear in court to respond to the alleged violation. In some cases, those receiving tickets have as little as 15 days to respond before having their license automatically suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear in court. If that resident is subsequently pulled over by the police they can be arrested and charged with “Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree,” or DWLS3 for short. And they may face further financial penalties, court time, and incarceration as a result.

Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree, or DWLS3, is the most frequently charged crime in Washington, impacting tens of thousands of Washingtonians each year. It is an extremely damaging criminal charge for people who cannot afford to pay for or show up in court to respond to a moving traffic violation. Read more in this ACLU of Washington report, ‘Driven to Fail.’

DWLS3 is the most frequently charged crime in Washington state, impacting tens of thousands of Washingtonians each year, according to a 2017 report from the ACLU of Washington. Between 1994, when the law was first enacted, and 2015, almost 900,000 people were convicted of DWLS3, with 40,000 convictions in 2015 alone.

For residents who are impacted, DWLS3 can be extremely damaging. After their conviction, they are significantly more likely to have trouble finding or keeping a good job. They may also struggle to find adequate housing later in life, due to the lasting effects of having a criminal record. Credit scores can also be harmed, making it harder to purchase a car or borrow funds to start a business.

There is no evidence that the law improves public safety. People living in areas where DWLS3 is treated more leniently are no more likely to be involved in a car accident than those living in areas with stricter enforcement, according to the ACLU of Washington.

Furthermore, DWLS3 is very costly for law enforcement and courts in Washington state to administer and enforce. Approximately $1.3 billion, likely a conservative estimate, was spent enforcing DWLS3 between 1994 and 2015, according to the ACLU of Washington. Those funds would have been better spent on schools, health care, child care, job training, and a host of other investments that help people get ahead.

Parts of this unjust law may soon be thrown out by state courts, which would be a great move in the right direction. A lawsuit recently filed by the ACLU of Washington against the Washington State Department of Licensing argues that current driver’s license suspension policies violate Washingtonians’ basic constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

But lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the state courts to act. There are a multitude of policy changes that the legislature should make when they gather early next year. They must act to increase public safety and repair the damage – particularly to communities of color – caused by the current DWLS3 law in Washington state. Lawmakers should follow the example of California, Oregon, and Idaho by:

  • Alleviating financial stress and hardship for thousands of Washingtonians by halting the practice of suspending driver’s licenses when individuals do not pay, do not appear in court, and do not respond to a moving violation. Doing so would also reduce costs for courts and law enforcement.
  • Ensuring residents don’t become needlessly trapped in the damaging criminal legal system by decriminalizing DWLS3. This means that residents who drive on a suspended license would still be subject to fines, but would not face arrest, incarceration, and a criminal charge. Decriminalizing DWLS3 would minimize the negative, long-term financial and legal impacts (like debt and a criminal record) that becoming entangled in the criminal legal system brings.
  • Restoring opportunities for economic advancement by creating accessible and affordable pathways for all Washingtonians who have DWLS3 charges and suspended licenses to repay fines associated with minor traffic infractions. Seattle and Spokane already do this. Lawmakers should also reinstate drivers licenses to the hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who have had theirs revoked simply for failing to pay a fine associated with a minor traffic infraction.
  • Creating a more compassionate and humane system of enforcing traffic laws by increasing the response time that people have to pay, appear in court, and respond to a moving violation.

It’s important to note that the above actions would not reduce crimes or penalties for drunk driving or for people who repeatedly violate traffic laws. Driving while under the influence and incurring repeated traffic infraction violations are separate crimes, unrelated to DWLS3. Unlike DWLS3, these crimes are a significant threat to public safety and the laws and penalties associated with them should remain in place.

Taking action to end debt-based driver’s license suspension practices will reduce the cycle of poverty. Washington lawmakers must take action to help ensure people aren’t getting trapped in that cycle or becoming entrapped in the damaging criminal legal system.

Stay tuned for future blog posts in this series, which will include a post examining in more detail how the law disproportionately impacts younger Washington residents and communities of color.