End Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions

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The most commonly charged crime in Washington state – Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree (DWLS3) – disproportionately impacts poor people, young people, and people of color, and does little to keep us safe.

Suspending drivers’ licenses and filing DWLS3 charges drains criminal justice resources and unduly burdens poor people with unnecessary criminal convictions that can affect employment and housing opportunities. There are better and more effective options for holding people accountable for failure to pay traffic citations.

Urge legislators to keep drivers licensed and insured and end debt-based licenses suspensions for moving violations.

Message Recipients: Washington State Senate and House.

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Your Message
Stop Punishing Poverty and End Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions
Dear Elected Official,

I am writing to urge you to support legislation in 2021 that would end debt-based driver’s license suspensions for civil moving violations. Reforming these laws would keep more drivers licensed and insured, and free up scarce criminal justice resources. A lawsuit was recently filed against the Department of Licensing challenging license suspension practices and illustrating the tremendous harm they cause, but it is ultimately up to the legislature to revise the relevant statutes. Lawmakers should pass legislation in 2021, joining other states that have recently done so, including - California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, Virginia, and soon, New York.

A driver can get 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 a huge amount of debt, a criminal charge for Driving While License Suspended in the third degree (DWLS3), and possibly jail time.

Here’s how it happens: A person without the ability to pay fines gets a moving violation while driving. They don’t pay the fine or respond to the violation within the mandated timeframe, which is sometimes as brief as 15 days. The state then suspends their license a few weeks later. Yet the driver has no option but to drive to drop their kids off at school or go to a doctor’s appointment. They drive anyway and get charged with the crime of DWLS3.

Lawmakers should support legislation that stops the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees for civil moving violations, ensuring that public safety is the focus of our state’s scarce criminal justice resources—not punishing people who are “driving while poor.” It would also ensure that drivers keep their insurance, can get to work, and provide transportation for their families. Reforming these laws will increase fairness and cost-effectiveness without sacrificing public safety.

The pandemic and economic recession make this legislation more important than ever. A valid license is often a requirement for employment. In a difficult economic time, a license is crucial. It also lets people get to work in a safe way, since social distancing is not always possible on public transportation - if such transportation is available at all.

Passing this legislation will decrease racial bias in policing and prosecution in Washington state. DWLS3 enforcement for debt-based license suspensions worsens the racial disparities in our state’s criminal justice system. People of color are much more likely to be charged for these crimes of poverty.

Reforming these laws will still hold people accountable and dangerous drivers will still have licenses suspended. Drivers who accumulate multiple moving violations will still have to pay fines and their licenses will be suspended. Same for people who drive under the influence or commit criminal traffic offenses. The biggest threats to roadway safety are impaired driving, speeding, and distracted driving. Drivers who present risks to others will continue to face serious consequences, such as criminal charges for reckless driving or DUI.

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. I urge you to support legislation in 2021 that will end debt-based driver’s license suspensions in Washington. Don’t wait.

Sincerely,

[First Name] [Last Name]
[Your Address]

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