Legislators must improve unjust driver’s license suspension laws

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Legislators must improve unjust driver’s license suspension laws

Getting rid of debt-based license suspensions would bring relief to many Washingtonians

By - February 3, 2021

Lawmakers in Washington state have the opportunity to bring meaningful financial and legal relief to tens of thousands of residents who have had a key economic asset – their driver’s licenses – suspended simply because they cannot afford to pay a citation for a minor moving violation, like failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Lawmakers should quickly pass Senate Bill 5226, which eases the economic and racial inequities that are worsened by Washington state’s unjust debt-based driver’s license suspension laws.

As we wrote previously, current state laws place Washingtonians who cannot afford to pay a minor traffic citation in an impossible situation: risk further debt and potential jail time by driving to work on a suspended license or stay home and risk losing their job and means of financial support. If pulled over by the police, a resident who must drive on a suspended license can be arrested and charged with “Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree,” or DWLS3. And they may face further financial penalties, court time, and incarceration as a result.

Due to the inherently racist nature of the criminal legal system, arrests, charges, incarceration, and fines and debt take a disproportionately large toll on Washingtonians who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). BIPOC residents receive citations at significantly greater rates than white people in Washington state and receive higher fines for the same violations.

If enacted, SB 5226 would provide life-altering relief and opportunity to thousands of residents who have been harmed by the state’s backwards driver’s license suspension policies. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Halt automatic suspensions, which would also reduce the risk of incurring a more severe DWLS3 charge. Further, this would help people who don’t have the capacity to pay avoid the burdensome costs associated with going to court, incurring large fines, compounding debt, and potential incarceration.
  • Give people the ability to renew their license if they previously had a license suspended because they couldn’t pay a citation or appear in court. This change would make more than 100,000 Washingtonians eligible for reinstatement of their driver’s licenses.
  • Create payment plans for people who cannot afford the cost of their minor traffic citations. These provisions help people meet the requirements of their citations in a plan that aligns with their financial needs and reduces hardship.

To be clear, Washingtonians would still be held accountable for driving dangerously under this legislation. Drivers who receive multiple moving violations would still be required to pay fines for those citations and could still have their licenses suspended. Furthermore, the bill would not alter laws and penalties associated with driving while intoxicated, which is a separate, much more serious crime under Washington state law.

Washington state should stop punishing people for “driving while poor.” People who’ve had their driver’s licenses unjustly revoked have to deal with even greater hardship in the midst of the economic and public health crises – especially given that cars are considered safer than shared transportation.

Lawmakers in Olympia must take the opportunity to move toward ending corrosive, self-defeating, and fundamentally racist laws that also deeply impact people with lower incomes. This bill is an overdue measure in rectifying driver’s license suspension laws and maintaining public safety. They should pass SB 5226 to protect people’s economic and legal security.

About Evan Walker, Policy Analyst