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Inslee signs off on driver's license suspension law, but controversy persists

Ryan Norris, a license service representative at the Washington state Department of Licensing office in Lacey, holds a sample copy of a Washington driver's license on June 22, 2018.
Ted S. Warren
/
The Associated Press file
Ryan Norris, a license service representative at the Washington state Department of Licensing office in Lacey, holds a sample copy of a Washington driver's license on June 22, 2018.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill on Monday that supporters claim stops the Washington state’s Department of Licensing from suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic tickets. 

But some say the bill doesn’t go far enough.

The new law allows drivers to sign up for a payment plan to pay for moving violations, such as speeding tickets. But a court can call a hearing if a payment is missed. And if the driver doesn’t show up to that hearing, the Department of Licensing has the authority to suspend that person’s license.  

“It's a loophole then, that still is going to punish those who are most economically insecure. And if the goal of these policies is actually to remove barriers that are harming those individuals, then it hasn't done that,” said Priya Sarathy Jones of the national Fines and Fees Justice Center. 

Opponents of the new law say people often miss court hearings for a variety of reasons, including lack of child care or transportation and unpredictable work schedules. 

In 2020, an estimated 44,000 people in Washington state were caught driving without a license, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. That crime disproportionately impacts communities of color.

"Our goal from the outset has been to eliminate debt-based driver’s license suspensions in Washington. We are disappointed that the final version of this bill as signed by the governor today does not accomplish its original intent," said Mark Cooke of the ACLU of Washington in a statement on Monday. "Debt-based license suspensions remain a reality despite the passage of this bill and the claims of its supporters."

Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline), the primary sponsor of the bill, defended the new law in a recent interview. Salomon said he doesn't think judges will require drivers to show up to hearings for nonpayment of fines often. Instead, the matter will simply go to a collection agency but a person's driver's license will remain intact. 

 

“It is a fact that the bill ends all suspensions for inability to pay and that in of itself is a colossal victory,” Salomon said. 

 

Salomon said lawmakers have been trying to pass similar legislation since 1988 but have been unable to until now.

 

Still, opponents of the new law, which takes effect in 2023, say other states, including Oregon, haven’t created the same kind of loopholes when stopping the practice of suspending licenses due to unpaid fines.

 

Earlier this month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that Washington state’s practice of suspending licenses because of unpaid traffic fines is unconstitutional.

This article was updated to include comments from Sen. Salomon.

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