SEATTLE (AP) – The most commonly charged crime in Washington shouldn’t be a crime at all, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argues in a new report.
Taxpayers spend more than $40 million a year to prosecute cases of third-degree driving with a suspended license, the organization found.
The crime covers those who keep driving after having their licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets or failing to show up for court hearings – though not those whose licenses are suspended for more serious offenses, such as drunken driving.
Drivers have been charged 1.4 million times, and convicted 860,000, since the Legislature made it a criminal offense in 1993, the report says.
The report, “Driven to Fail,” says the law effectively criminalizes poverty, sometimes sending people to jail for using their cars to get to the jobs they need to pay off their tickets, and that it disproportionately hurts young, minority and low-income drivers. Furthermore, the report says, it does little to protect public safety, as there’s little reason to think people who don’t pay their traffic tickets are worse drivers than those who do.
Cities and counties have wrestled for years with the heavy burden of the cases, which in some places have made up one-third or more of the local criminal docket. Some cities, including Spokane and Longview, have set up programs to put people on track to pay their fines or get their licenses back, while prosecutors in some other places, including Seattle, Yakima and Snohomish County, have mostly stopped filing the charges at all – instead treating the offense as a civil infraction of up to $250.
A state task force is working on recommendations for a statewide payment plan for traffic tickets, which could make it easier for courts to consolidate a driver’s outstanding fines and get them relicensed more quickly. Meanwhile, a measure before the Legislature, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dave Hayes, a veteran police officer from Camano Island, would specify that people not have their license suspended unless they have at least two outstanding traffic tickets.
But Hayes said he wouldn’t support decriminalizing the offense, as a half-dozen other states have done.
In many areas the crime is effectively decriminalized already, leading to widely varying enforcement. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes began declining to prosecute it in the vast majority of cases soon after taking office, saying the cases cost a lot more than they bring in in fines and they’re not a public safety priority. The number of third-degree driving with a suspended license cases in Seattle fell from more than 3,900 in 2010 to 359 in 2015.
In Yakima, City Prosecutor Cynthia Martinez said rules the Washington Supreme Court issued in 2012 about how many cases public defenders can handle forced the city – and many others – to re-examine its practices. Cases of driving with a suspended license made up about 20 percent of its caseload then, and it was a choice between cutting that and hiring more public defenders.
Now, Yakima reduces the charges to infractions, unless someone is a repeat offender or if the driver also faces other charges.
“We didn’t feel it had much deterrent effect,” Martinez said. “People were just racking up more and more fines, which made it less possible for them to get license back.”
Longview City Attorney James McNamara said that while his city has adopted a program to help people get relicensed, he didn’t think local jurisdictions should be ignoring state law by not prosecuting.
The first time Steven Gaines, a 25-year-old restaurant manager in Leavenworth, was arrested for driving with a suspended license, he didn’t know it was suspended. It turned out he had failed to make a final payment on an earlier ticket, he said.
Since then, he said, he’s gone to jail two more times for the same offense, with the longest stint lasting two weeks, and he’s spent about $5,000 on legal and collections fees – about half of what he owes. At one point he lost a part-time job because he could no longer drive to it, Gaines said.
“That’s one thing I stated to the judge: I’m trying to drive to work to be a productive member of society, and you’re trying to punish me for it,” he said. “It’s an unfair punishment for something so small.”
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.