State will no longer revoke driver’s licenses due to failure to pay fines

Excerpt of the court decision.

Excerpt of the court decision (PDF).

Washington State is reinstating about 100,000 people’s driver’s licenses after Thurston County Superior Court found it unconstitutional to revoke a license due to failure to pay a fine or appear in court for a non-criminal moving violation. The state’s Department of Licensing will not appeal the decision.

Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, this is good news for traffic safety in our state. Revoking a license should be reserved for people who have demonstrated that they are a serious danger behind the wheel and pose a threat to public safety. It should absolutely not be used as a way to further punish people for being poor.

One of the biggest challenges to stopping repeat dangerous drivers is how to stop them from continuing to drive regardless of the status of their license. It is not a great idea to pack prisons full of bad drivers, but there needs to be some significant deterrent for the small percentage of people who continue making dangerous decisions such as repeat DUI drivers. One such deterrent is to make it a significant offense to drive with a suspended license.

However, when licenses can be suspended solely due to failure to pay a fine, then the penalty for driving with a suspended license becomes a penalty for being poor. That is not at all what that infraction should be trying to accomplish. The act of driving even though a court has decided you are too dangerous to drive is a serious threat to public safety. Driving without paying a ticket is not a serious public safety threat. These acts should never be treated as equal.

Michelle Baruchman at the Seattle Times summed up the problem well:

Previously in Washington, a driver who received a speeding ticket or another kind of moving violation, could pay the fine or request a hearing. If the individual either did not respond to the citation or failed to appear in court, their driver’s license would be suspended.

People caught driving with a suspended license for noncriminal offenses were charged with a misdemeanor crime that led to 90 days in jail or another $1,000 fine — adding to existing debt and making it harder for drivers to get their licenses back, [ACLU Senior Staff Attorney John] Midgley said.

In its complaint, the ACLU argued the “severe and life-altering” impacts of the law would often “trigger a cascading set of adverse consequences” felt acutely by people with lower incomes. Wealthier individuals could retain their licenses “even though they are guilty of the exact same infractions.”

The court decision effectively speeds up a change that was already coming. A new state law that takes effect January 2023 will rewrite the conditions for having a license revoked. Senate Bill 5226, passed earlier this year, removes failure to pay as a reason to revoke a license. However, the new law retains failure to appear in court as a reason.

Having your license suspended should mean something. Licenses should be entirely about a driver’s demonstrated ability to operate a car safely. If a license is revoked, it should be due to that person’s past dangerous decisions behind the wheel and nothing else.

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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7 Responses to State will no longer revoke driver’s licenses due to failure to pay fines

  1. Peri Hartman says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Punishing people to be poor doesn’t achieve anything.

    On the other hand, people who have driving infractions still need to be held accountable. How can that be achieved ? Public service ? Maybe further driver’s ed ?

  2. va says:

    How do you reconcile “Licenses should be entirely about a driver’s demonstrated ability to operate a car safely. ” and
    “A driver who received a speeding ticket” in the quote above though?
    This person has demonstrated not to be safe behind the wheel…

    I honestly find the tone a bit patronizing, when it’s okay to violate laws and ignore consequences if you’re poor. “Drive like there’s no tomorrow, what can they do to you?”

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      “non-criminal moving violation” If it’s the kind of infraction one could simply pay a ticket and be done with (if they have the money), then that is not the kind of infraction that would result in suspension of a license. Criminal infractions like reckless driving (including very high-end speeding) are not affected.

      • jay says:

        “non-criminal moving violation” such as killing a pedestrian in a cross walk? e.g. Caleb Shoop

        I don’t know who/what generates the “related stories” links, while this one was not in a crosswalk, it is under the current story.

        People who can’t afford to pay tickets probably can’t afford good insurance either (or any, is driving without insurance criminal?)
        While I could certainly afford to pay a traffic ticket (had I received any in the last 40 years) I pay about $250 for un/under insured motorist coverage more than 5 “unsafe lane lane changes” or one “failure to yield”

  3. Josh says:

    This is an excellent first step. As a follow-up, the Legislature should re-evaluate which moving violations rise to the level of a serious threat to public safety. (Looking at you, convertible driver watching a movie on the iPad balanced on your steering wheel on I-5…)

  4. Ballard Biker says:

    Maybe we need to revamp our fine system to be based on income like Finland. Fines should be a deterrent, but not debilitating. Instead of revoking licenses, maybe there can be a payment plan available, but no one should be immune from consequences, especially when their actions directly put other people’s lives in danger.

    However, at some point, whether rich or poor, continual violations of traffic laws need to result in revocation of driving privileges. Start with suspensions of 90 days, 1 year and then permanent. Require additional drivers education (must be flexible so as not to disadvantage poor) after the 90 day and 1 year suspension to regain your license. Additionally require community service after the 1 year suspension to regain your license. I would be open to rolling back levels of suspension based on good driving behavior (i.e. after a 90 day suspension, if you stay clean for a set period of time, say 5 years, you

    DUIs need to go straight to the 90 day/1 year/permanent suspensions with no amnesty.

  5. Steve M says:

    So poor people can afford to own, maintain, insure and feed (gas and oil) their motor vehicle but the occasional fine for a traffic infraction (or failure to pay it) is punitive?! BS.
    Can’t afford a traffic ticket? Don’t commit an infraction or don’t drive.

    This idea that we have rules and laws that we as a society agree to abide by but no consequences for those who feel those laws (or penalties) don’t apply to them effectively erases the rule or law, as it has for me with regard to returning library materials (my little personal protest of this new, permissive approach).
    Removing penalties for violating a rule or law is going to ultimately lead to a more selfish, less cooperative community. I’m opposed.

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