Under current state law, violators can be jailed if caught driving with a suspended license because of unpaid traffic tickets or missed court hearings.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is continuing to push for change in a law that legislators, civil-rights groups and others say disproportionately burdens the poor and communities of color.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, Senate Bill 6189 would decriminalize the charge of third-degree driving with a suspended license, a misdemeanor.
The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee but not yet scheduled for a hearing.
Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, who chairs the committee, said he agreed the issue is important, but with a short legislative session and many bills to review, he was hesitant to say if he will schedule a hearing on a proposal that in the past hasn’t been successful.
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Under current state law, those caught driving with a suspended license due to unpaid traffic tickets or because they didn’t show up for court hearings can be jailed.
It’s the state’s most commonly charged crime, according to a 2017 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
SB 6189 would remove its misdemeanor status and make the charge a traffic infraction with a $250 penalty. The penalty would be reduced to $50 if a defendant could show he or she got the license reinstated.
Since 1994, prosecutors in Washington state have filed some 1.4 million charges and obtained 860,000 convictions, according to the ACLU report. Native Americans were twice as likely as whites to be charged with the crime of third-degree driving while license suspended (DWLS-III), and blacks were three times as likely.
Unpaid traffic infractions can pile up quickly, with some people accumulating thousands of dollars in fines that must be paid off to reinstate their license, said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, which operates a program in Spokane that helps people reinstate a suspended license.
A DWLS-III conviction makes it difficult for people to get to work and further holds back those working their way toward paying off fines and avoiding more fines or jail time, said Eichstaedt.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has opposed previous efforts to decriminalize DWLS-III, but Executive Director Steve Strachan said the organization recognizes the financial burden the law has caused.
The association wants to work with legislators to find a balanced solution to DWLS-III where accountability still exists and abuse of the system is discouraged, Strachan said.
Fain, the Auburn lawmaker, previously worked in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and said he witnessed a deluge of DWLS-III cases that made it difficult to focus on more important cases, such as drunken driving.
In 2009, in conjunction with King County District Court, the prosecutor’s office stopped charging stand-alone DWLS-III cases, but Fain said prosecutors still spent a lot of time handling such cases tied to other crimes.
“I want to spend more of my time on things that will actually improve public safety,” Fain said.
Third-degree driving with a suspended license is the least serious of the DWLS charges. First- and second-degree driving with a suspended license are charges aimed at habitual offenders and those who lost their licenses due to drunken-driving or reckless-driving convictions.
“I think individuals, especially lower-income people, living paycheck to paycheck need to be able to go to work and pay their fines,” Fain said, “so you want to make sure you’re not inhibiting a person’s ability to comply with the law.”
Co-sponsor Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said fines and the possibility of jail time under the current law effectively criminalize poverty and hurt communities of color.
“Putting people into this cycle where people get fined and they can’t pay and get further fined,” said Frockt, “there’s other alternatives.”
If a measure is passed, Washington would join a handful of states that have decriminalized driving with a suspended license, including Oregon, Wisconsin and Maine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 1993, Senate Bill 1741 made driving with a suspended license due to unpaid traffic infractions a misdemeanor.