Washington state stops driver license revocation for unpaid tickets, no-show in court

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SEATTLE – Approximately 100,000 Washington drivers will soon have their driver’s licenses reinstated under a court-ordered moratorium on the state’s practice of revoking licenses to punish drivers who fail to pay fines or fail to appear in court.

The new policy starts on Tuesday. The change comes after a Thurston County Supreme Court judge ruled in May that it would be unconstitutional for the state to withdraw licenses from people who haven’t paid traffic fines without determining whether they can afford them because of it violates their right to due process.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the state licensing department last year on the grounds that the state’s practice hurts those who cannot afford to pay for their tickets.

By June 16, the state will restore driver’s licenses to all drivers who have been exposed for non-payment or failure to appear in court for a non-criminal traffic violation such as running over a red light or driving too fast.

About 200,000 people have their license revoked for failing to appear in court, although that number also includes criminal charges, according to DOL. The Washington ACLU estimates 100,000 people will have their licenses restored as part of the policy changes.

The previous license reinstatement fee of $ 75 will be waived.

“This makes a huge difference in their lives for many people,” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney John Midgley. “Some of our plaintiffs in the case couldn’t get jobs because they couldn’t get there by car. Medical care, child care, school, work – things that people need cars for. And in many parts of the country, especially in the countryside, there just isn’t a lot of public transport. “

Following the order, the ACLU met with the State Department in what Midgley called a “respectful negotiation” to discuss the terms. “We will adhere to the order and not object,” said DOL spokesman Nathan Olson.

The new policy will apply until January 1, 2023 when Senate Law No. 5226 comes into effect. Pursuant to SB 5226, passed by the state legislature earlier this year, drivers who appear at all of their court hearings will not have their driver’s licenses suspended.

However, the bill will maintain suspensions for drivers who do not appear in court.

Midgley says the ACLU remains concerned about this part of the bill as it can fail because people have to work, cannot get transportation to court, or miss hearings for other unintended reasons.

“We are very concerned that there are still no debt-based suspensions. But we want to see how it is implemented and work from there. “

The court ordered the DOL to prepare reports on the implementation of SB 5226.

Previously, in Washington, a driver who received a speeding ticket or other type of administrative offense could pay the fine or request a hearing. If the person either didn’t respond to the quote or didn’t appear in court, their driver’s license would be revoked.

People caught driving for non-criminal offenses with a suspended driver’s license were charged with an offense that resulted in 90 days in jail or an additional $ 1,000 fine – adding to existing debt and making it difficult for drivers to get their driver’s licenses to get back, said Midgley.

In its complaint, the ACLU argued that the “serious and life-changing” effects of the law would often “trigger a cascade of adverse consequences” acutely felt by those on lower incomes. Wealthier people could keep their licenses “even though they are guilty of exactly the same violations”.

The attorney general, who defended the state in the legal dispute, referred a request for comment to the DOL.

In arguments against the bill, Kelsi Hamilton, who represented the Washington Collectors Association, said Washington has high rates for uninsured drivers in the country, and it’s reportedly one of the few incentives to get people to get insurance.

The changes do not apply to habitual offenders or people who have committed criminal offenses. And the state will continue to “withhold” vehicle registration for violations such as unpaid toll or parking tickets, unpaid fees, and dishonorable payments.



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