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Should You Have Your License Suspended if You Can’t Pay a Fine? Judge Says No


Martín Bilbao / The Olympian 

Washington drivers who cannot afford to pay fines imposed for speeding and other moving violations can no longer have their licenses suspended following a Thurston County Superior Court ruling.

Judge Mary Sue Wilson ruled the state law authorizing the suspensions unconstitutional as it applies to people who are indigent, according to court documents. In doing so, Wilson sided with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit in October on behalf of individuals affected by the suspensions.

“Inability to pay because of poverty should never be a reason to suspend a license and the state cannot punish people simply for being poor,” said ACLU staff attorney Lisa Nowlin in a news release. “We are thrilled that today’s ruling makes that clear.”

The ACLU argued the law is unconstitutional because the suspensions were automatic and mandatory, thereby denying drivers of due process. Wilson’s ruling specifically finds the law unconstitutional when there is no meaningful evaluation of a driver’s ability to pay the fines.

Moving violations include any breach of vehicle laws committed by a driver while their vehicle is in motion, according to Washington Administrative Code. This contrasts with non-moving violations which can include parking or paperwork violations.

License suspensions can cause people to lose their jobs or income, the ACLU argued in the case. Suspensions also can impact individuals’ ability to transport children to school or care for family members, the ACLU said.

“These additional barriers compound the root problems that make it difficult for people with low or no income to pay fines and fees,” the release says.

The Department of Licensing argued people who get their license suspended are afforded due process because they can present their financial status to the court that determined their violations, according to court documents.

Individuals also have time to pay the fines before suspensions take effect, during which an administrative review process can verify their identity and the amount they owe, the DOL argued.

The ACLU contended this law violates the equal protection guarantee in the state constitution because it unfairly punishes the poor with license suspensions while those with means can pay the fines.

The DOL refuted this assertion, saying in court documents that the law does not violate the equal protection guarantee because it applies to all person equally, regardless of income.

The department also held that driver’s licenses are a privilege rather than a right for equal protection purposes, according to court documents. Furthermore, the DOL argued that the suspension is not a punishment because it is temporary.

Nowlin said in release that the ACLU is still reviewing the judge’s ruling, which could be appealed by the DOL. The ACLU is calling on the state legislature to end debt-based license suspensions, the release says.

On April 26, the state legislature sent Senate Bill 5226 to Gov. Jay Inslee. In its final form, the bill removes the penalty for failing to pay a traffic infraction. This means people who fail to pay will no longer have their driver’s license suspended, at least at first.

The bill also allows people to enter a payment plan with the court. However, if a person fails to pay under their payment plan and subsequently fails to appear at a mandatory court hearing, they can still have their license suspended.

The ACLU largely opposes this bill because it effectively continues to permit debt-based license suspensions. In their news release, the ACLU called on Inslee to veto the bill except for a portion that allows people to have their licenses reinstated.

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