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Timothy Kaufman-Osborn: ACLU lawsuit aims to protect the vulnerable

  • 3 min to read

Friday’s Union-Bulletin editorial on driver’s license suspensions misses the mark. The ACLU of Washington’s recently filed lawsuit against the state Department of Licensing (Pierce et al. v. DOL) is not about letting people off the hook for committing traffic offenses or enabling scofflaws.

It’s about preventing the state from punishing people for poverty by taking away someone’s driver’s license when the person does not have the ability to pay the fines. State and federal courts have already said that a driver’s license is not a mere privilege: Possession of a license is a property interest that cannot be taken away without due process of law.

The ACLU suit sheds light on the constitutional problems with the harsh practice of taking licenses from people unable to pay fines for mere moving violations.

A driver can get cited for a moving violation for something as simple as failing to signal while making a turn. But for people who cannot afford to pay the ticket, this minor infraction (which is not a crime) can set off a chain of events that ends with huge amount of debt, a criminal charge for driving while license suspended in the third degree, and possibly jail time.

Here’s how it happens: A person of limited means gets a ticket for a moving violation while driving. When they are unable to pay the fine within the mandated timeframe, which is sometimes as short as 15 days, the state suspends their license for nonpayment. Yet, work and family obligations persist and with no other option to get kids to school or go to work or a doctor’s appointment, they drive anyway – and are ultimately charged with driving with a suspended license.

This mirrors the situation for plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Danielle Pierce from Everett. In her own words, “When my license was suspended, I was living in my car and unable to pay the ticket. I had to drive to work though, and so the tickets for driving without a license and thousands of dollars in additional fines, fees, and interest piled on over the years.” Danielle is paying huge amounts to get her license back, but the debt is so big that she still doesn’t have it. This would not have happened if she had been able to pay, and she is not alone.

According to data provided by the DOL for an Attorney General report, it’s estimated that there are around 190,000 people who have a license suspended for failing to comply with a traffic ticket. In Walla Walla County, it’s reported that more than 800 drivers have this type of suspension. The scale of this problem is only made worse during the current pandemic and economic recession. The ability to drive a car is more important than ever before for public health purposes and for keeping a job.

This is the reality for another plaintiff in the case, Lacy Spicer, who was recently offered a job to manage multiple dental practices. She even had a start date. Unfortunately, she then learned that the job required a valid driver’s license. She wants to work, but the massive debt preventing her from getting her driver’s license stands in the way. This hurts people like Lacy who want to move beyond their traffic violations and also hurts every taxpayer in the state. Washington should not allow such a system to exist and should change these laws.

The Union-Bulletin editorial did correctly identify a key stakeholder in all of this – the Washington state Legislature. State lawmakers should fix these broken laws, which is why the ACLU of Washington, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals directly impacted by these laws, have been lobbying for changes since 2018. Legislative inaction is part of the reason a lawsuit was necessary. Hopefully, 2021 will be the year that Washington joins other states that have recently stopped suspending driver’s licenses for people who don’t have the ability to pay traffic fines, including – California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, Virginia, and soon, New York.

Ultimately, suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay fines and fees is unfair and counterproductive. Rural residents, young adults, and people of color are disproportionately affected by these laws, which punish poverty and do not promote public safety. Taxpayers are burdened as well. Local jurisdictions waste scarce criminal justice resources by charging people with this victimless crime: A conservative estimate for the costs of enforcing DWLS3 cases in Washington for the years 1994-2015 is more than $1.3 billion. As a result, everyone suffers.

DOL is required to follow the law – in this case, the Washington and U.S. Constitutions. The state can hold people accountable without punishing and criminalizing poverty in violation of constitutional rights. Washington’s law authorizing automatic and mandatory license suspensions for failure to pay moving violation fines must be struck down by the courts or changed by the Legislature.

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn of Walla Walla serves on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.