The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the state Department of Licensing on Wednesday, arguing the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses when they fail to pay traffic fines unfairly hurts those who can’t afford to pay their tickets.

The complaint, filed in Thurston County Superior Court on behalf of people whose licenses have been suspended, names the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) and department director Teresa Berntsen as defendants.

Now in Washington, when a driver gets a moving violation like a speeding ticket, they can pay the fine or request a hearing. But if they don’t respond to the citation or fail to appear at a hearing, DOL suspends their license. If the person doesn’t pay or enter a payment plan, the court can refer the debt to a collection agency.

People who then drive without a valid license can be charged with a misdemeanor — driving while license suspended in the third degree — which can carry another $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail. (Drivers whose licenses have been suspended for more serious offenses, such as reckless driving, vehicular assault or driving under the influence, can be charged with higher degrees of that crime.) 

The ACLU argues this system unconstitutionally favors wealthier people, who can pay their tickets and keep their licenses, while stripping people with low incomes of their right to drive, trapping them with ballooning debt and making it harder for them to keep a job that could help them pay off their fines.

“License suspensions for those unable to pay fines, fees, and default judgments for moving violations are not about public safety,” the complaint said. “Individuals with means retain their license even though they are guilty of the exact same infractions.”

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DOL spokesperson Christine Anthony said in an email Wednesday, “We have just received the lawsuit and will be working with the Attorney General’s Office on our next steps.” The Attorney General’s Office referred a request for comment to the DOL.

The complaint argues the system disproportionately harms people of color, citing research showing people of color are disproportionately ticketed and end up with higher fines.

Drivers may fail to appear for hearings because they can’t get child care or time off work because of housing instability or mental health issues, or because they know they can’t pay the fees, the complaint says.

The ACLU claims the system violates state constitutional rights to due process and equal protection and against excessive fines. The attorneys ask the court to stop the Department of Licensing from suspending licenses for unpaid tickets or failure to appear.

In response to similar concerns about the effects of suspended licenses, state lawmakers in 2018 considered reducing the penalty for third-degree driving with a suspended license from a misdemeanor to a traffic infraction. 

At the time, Kelsi Hamilton, a representative of the Washington Collectors Association, which represents debt collectors, testified before the Legislature that decriminalizing driving with a suspended license would reduce the incentive to pay off tickets and would cost the state revenue. “Eliminating them from having a license suspension when they’re violating traffic safety laws is not good public policy,” Hamilton said. 

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Washington stopped suspending licenses for nonpayment in cases of non-moving violations such as parking tickets. Some states, including Oregon and California, have stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay. 

For 33-year-old Danielle Pierce, one of the plaintiffs in the case, what started as a speeding ticket spiraled into more than $10,000 of debt and years without a license. 

Pierce struggled with drug addiction and was living in her car in 2011 when she received a $175 speeding ticket, according to the complaint. 

When she didn’t pay the ticket, the state suspended her license. Over the next few years, Pierce received more traffic tickets and multiple charges for driving while license suspended. She couldn’t pay any of them, she said.

Today, Pierce is sober. She has a job and housing, where she lives with her 15-year-old daughter in Everett. “But I still don’t have my license back,” she said in an interview. 

Her debt ended up at a collections agency that garnished her wages. Pierce tried to set up payment plans but the agency told her she would need to start with a $4,000 down payment, she said. “I didn’t have $4,000.”

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Meanwhile, Pierce needs to drive to get to work and to addiction-recovery meetings. Some nights she gets off work at midnight, too late for local buses to be a real option. So she drives anyway, anxious about being pulled over.

“I understand when you do something wrong there have to be consequences,” Pierce said, “but when is enough enough?” 

Courts across the state offer payment plans, but they can vary widely, according to a 2017 report from Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Ferguson recommended a “unified payment plan system” to help people pay off their fines.

At the time of the report, about 190,000 people had their licenses suspended for failure to respond or pay, amounting to about half of all people whose driving privileges had been suspended or revoked, according to the report.

Like the ACLU, the attorney general wrote that suspending licenses for unpaid debt disproportionately hurts people of color and people with low incomes. 

Lacy Spicer, 45, got two tickets in 2011 and 2012 that she planned to pay until a back injury forced her to have emergency surgery and she lost her job, she said. 

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Spicer struggled on a limited income as she cared for her elderly grandmother, went through a separation from her husband and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and diabetes. 

She and her daughter, who is now 17, moved frequently, sometimes having to drive long distances to reach her daughter’s school. For daily trips between Snohomish and Gold Bar, public transit wasn’t viable, she said. 

Over several years, Spicer got more traffic tickets. She was charged with driving while her license was suspended and at one point was arrested, she said. Her debt had grown to $12,000.

“It felt hopeless,” Spicer said. “I didn’t think there was any way of getting out of that hole. I just shut down basically.”

Finding work is harder without a driver’s license. Spicer said she recently advanced through the interview process for a well-paying job managing dental clinics but then was disqualified because of ongoing issues with her driver’s license.

The law feels punishing and unfair, Spicer said.

“If I had money, that would have been done and over with. I would have moved on with my life,” she said. “But because I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket, I was made to suffer more severe consequences. I felt like our system was kicking me when I was already down.”