Bill would create a plan for non-dangerous drivers by 2018
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced a plan to take on the challenges posed by the significant number of driver’s license suspensions in Washington. Ferguson’s proposal would bring together law enforcement, the courts, and other stakeholders to address the challenges faced by low-income drivers who lose their license because they are unable to pay traffic fines.
The Attorney General has requested legislation (HB 2659 / SB 6360) that would lead to the creation of a new statewide program to allow Washington drivers to set up consolidated, affordable payment plans to pay traffic-based fines and monetary obligations. The new program will reduce the number of Washingtonians with suspended driver’s licenses, lower court costs, and increase local revenue.
The Department of Licensing reports more than 380,000 Washingtonians have suspended or revoked driver’s licenses — more than 5 percent of the state’s population. A significant number of suspensions are solely the result of a failure to pay traffic fines.
Drivers who can afford to pay a traffic fine can continue to drive legally without further problem. But for otherwise law-abiding residents who can’t afford to pay a ticket, they may not be able to secure a payment plan that they can reasonably afford, especially when they owe fines in multiple jurisdictions, and nonpayment leads to license suspension and escalating penalties and fees.
Without driving privileges, getting to work becomes a challenge for a commuting farmworker in Yakima or a Seattle parent balancing child care and a job. If a suspended license leads to unemployment, it can prevent payment of the very fines that contributed to the problem.
Suspension can also lead to complications in fulfilling family obligations, accessing health care, and performing other important activities that require transportation.
“Our current system places an unequal burden on low-income drivers,” Ferguson said. “That’s wrong, and it’s time for a more equitable solution that serves otherwise law-abiding residents and law enforcement alike. This bill offers a framework to craft a thoughtful solution that enhances public safety, while promoting opportunity for all Washingtonians.”
"These aren't hit-and-run drivers we're talking about,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), prime sponsor of HB 2659. “These are people who, like many of us, committed a minor traffic infraction, but didn't have the resources to pay their ticket. Instead of taking their licenses, and their ability to keep their jobs and take care of their families, let's work toward a solution that gives them a path to pay their debt."
“It benefits no one when drivers lose their licenses just because they can’t pay their fines,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-University Place), prime sponsor of SB 6360. “This bill is a common-sense approach to fixing an administrative problem that will ease the burden on courts, and keep drivers on the road as long as they’re making progress on their obligations.”
Widespread problem, lack of coordination across jurisdictions
Under state law, failing to pay a ticket can result in a driver’s license suspension until the fines and penalties are paid or otherwise adjudicated. Local courts have the authority, at their discretion, to enter into payment plans with individuals. However, not all jurisdictions offer payment plans, and when offered, they only allow for the payment of fines and penalties in that particular jurisdiction.
Ferguson’s proposal would ultimately allow a driver who owes fines in one or more jurisdictions to negotiate a single payment plan that, if paid timely, would allow the driver to maintain his or her license. The program would not affect the duration of license suspensions made mandatory under the law.
Importantly, the plan would only apply to people with otherwise valid licenses — those whose difficulty paying substantial fines is their only legal impediment to driving. Individuals making regular payments who have no other holds on their licenses could have their driving privileges reinstated while they continue to make required payment progress. Washingtonians with outstanding criminal penalties or proceedings, or those who reoffend, would be ineligible for reinstatement under the program.
The benefits of the proposed statewide consolidated payment system would include improved public safety and efficiency in our court system. Studies estimate that approximately 75 percent of individuals with suspended licenses nonetheless continue to drive. Without a valid license, these individuals also do not have valid insurance, which creates a risk to public health and safety. The proposed plan to facilitate license reinstatement will allow many of these drivers to be insurable, promoting public safety.
Driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor in the third degree. According to the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts, these types of cases comprise about one in four of all misdemeanor prosecutions in the state, consuming a significant amount of judicial and public safety resources. By helping drivers pay their fines and keep their licenses, the proposed program will greatly reduce the burden these cases place on the court system.
Some jurisdictions have attempted to address these problems at the local level and have seen success. For example, the Spokane municipal court’s program to facilitate consolidated and affordable payments has benefitted residents and improved court efficiency, and increased local revenues through the collection of outstanding fines and monetary obligations.
Convening stakeholders to develop legislative proposal
To begin to tackle this problem, in September, Ferguson convened a broad group of stakeholders, including representatives from the courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and state and local government agencies. With broad buy-in from stakeholders, the proposed legislation establishes a road map for moving forward with a solution.
Under the bill, the Administrative Office of the Courts will develop a program that will allow people to consolidate their traffic obligations across jurisdictions into a realistic, unified payment plan.
The Attorney General’s Office will continue to convene a stakeholder group to provide input into program development. A final report and plan would be due to the Legislature no later than Dec. 1, 2017.
Legislative hearing set
A hearing on the legislation requested by Ferguson is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28, in the House Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov