A Thurston County Superior Court judge has ruled that Washington state’s practice of suspending licenses because of unpaid traffic fines is unconstitutional.
In the ruling, Judge Mary Sue Wilson said the state’s Department of Licensing can only suspend licenses after it develops a method for evaluating whether people have the ability to pay for the tickets. Before the ruling, the department could suspend licenses for any unpaid moving violations, such as speeding tickets.
In court papers, the ACLU of Washington estimates that at least 190,000 Washingtonians have lost their licenses due to an inability to pay fines.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
ACLU attorney Lisa Nowlin says the practice of suspending driver's licenses has “really sweeping ramifications for people,” such as “cascading fines, collection fees. So it's a very big deal for people to have their license suspended. And we would hope that that unconstitutional practice stops.”
One of the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit, Lacy Spicer, had her license suspended in 2012 and after years owed a total of $12,000 in fees.
“I just didn't have the funds available. That's where it started. And after a while I just kind of forgot about the ticket,” Spicer said in a recent interview. “I had a lot going on in my life, and I was a single mom and I was going through a terrible divorce. And I just forgot about it.
“It just slipped my mind. It wasn't important to me at the time, I guess,” said Spicer, a 45-year-old Marysville resident.
Spicer was told she could only get her license back after paying back what she owed to a collection agency. She said she was relieved to hear about the recent ruling.
“There's a chance that I'll become a licensed driver again, and I'll feel like I got my life back because I'm not a criminal,” Spicer said. “The Department of Licensing, they classified me as being a danger to public safety, and that is just not true.”
The ACLU argues the Department of Licensing’s practice of suspending licenses violates Washington state’s equal protection guarantee “because it treats people charged with the same moving violation differently, punishing the poor with license suspensions but not those with means to pay.”
The group also claims the practice violates the state constitution’s protection from excessive fines.
“Suspending a license is a penalty that is grossly disproportionate to the underlying offense of failure to pay the fine for a mere moving violation. This is especially true when the suspension dramatically increases the total fine when fees and other charges are tacked on,” reads the lawsuit.
Other states, including Oregon, have already passed laws that prevent the suspension of licenses due to unpaid fines.
It was not immediately clear whether the Department of Licensing planned to appeal the ruling.