About 100,000 Washington drivers will soon have their licenses reinstated under a court-ordered moratorium on the state’s practice of revoking licenses to penalize drivers who fail to pay fines or fail to appear in court.
The new policy began Tuesday. The change comes after a Thurston County Superior Court judge in May ruled it was unconstitutional for the state to take away licenses for people who didn’t pay traffic fines without determining their ability to afford it, because it violated their right to due process.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the state Department of Licensing last year, arguing the state’s practice unfairly hurts those who can’t afford to pay their tickets.
By June 16, the state will reinstate licenses for all drivers who had them suspended for failing to pay or failing to appear in court for a noncriminal moving violation, such as running a red light or speeding.
About 200,000 people have their licenses suspended for failure to appear in court, although that number includes citations for criminal offenses, according to DOL. The ACLU of Washington estimates 100,000 people will get their licenses restored under the policy changes.
The previous $75 fee to reinstate licenses will be waived.
“This makes a tremendous difference for many people in their lives,” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney John Midgley. “Some of our plaintiffs in the case couldn’t take jobs because they couldn’t drive to get there. Medical care, child care, school, work — things that people need cars to get to. And in many areas of the state, especially rural areas, there just aren’t a lot of public-transportation options.”
Following the order, the ACLU met with the state department in what Midgley called a “respectful negotiation” to discuss the terms. “We will abide by the order and will not appeal it,” said DOL spokesperson Nathan Olson.
The new policy will be in place until Jan. 1, 2023, when Senate Bill 5226 takes effect. Under SB 5226, which passed in the state Legislature this year, drivers who show up in court for all of their hearings will not have their licenses suspended.
However, the bill will keep in place suspensions for drivers who fail to appear in court.
Midgley says the ACLU remains concerned about this part of the bill because failures to appear can occur because people have to work, can’t get transportation to court or miss hearings for other unintentional reasons.
“We’re very concerned that failure to appear debt-based suspensions are still there. But we want to see how it’s implemented and, and work from there.”
The court mandated that the DOL produce reports on the implementation of SB 5226.
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, 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 Attorney General’s Office, which defended the state in the legal case, 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 in the nation for uninsured drivers and reports said “This is one of the few incentives to get people to provide insurance.”
The changes will not apply to habitual offenders or people who committed criminal offenses. And the state will continue to put a “hold” on a vehicle registrations for infractions such as unpaid tolling or parking tickets, unpaid fees and dishonored payments.
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