SEATTLE – About 35,000 Washington residents have benefited so far from a state Supreme Court ruling in June that made it illegal for the Department of Licensing to suspend licenses for unpaid tickets for minor traffic violations or missed court hearings.
Bellevue attorney Donna Tucker, one of two attorneys who successfully argued the case before the state Supreme Court, said she’s never seen so many thankful people in her life.
“I’ve had total strangers come up and hug me,” Tucker said.
In addition to the change for unpaid tickets, Tucker said hundreds of people have also avoided prosecution for driving with a suspended license when the court dismissed or closed their cases. “It’s not that often that a law has such a huge impact on Average Joes,” Tucker said.
The courts are still in the process of educating their staff on the ruling and its impact, so Tucker said, some people are being advised erroneously by court employees that their licenses have been suspended.
Cathy Grindle, director of court technology in the King County District Courts, which handle tickets for the county and 17 cities, said it will take a while for re-education to catch up with the law.
In a 5-4 decision last month, the state Supreme Court said the Licensing Department’s practice of suspending licenses of drivers who failed to pay traffic tickets or did not appear in court was unconstitutional because it didn’t provide an administrative hearing or an appeal procedure and thus denied some drivers their guaranteed due process.
There are questions about the wording of the ruling, but it is generally understood to affect only those whose licenses suspected for minor or third-class violations and not those arrested on more serious charges such as driving while intoxicated or vehicular assault.
Gigi Zenk, a spokeswoman for the Department of Licensing in Olympia, said that of the more than 370,000 suspensions issued by the Licensing Department last year, about 307,000 licenses were suspended for third-class violations.
Zenk warned drivers that they should not view the Supreme Court ruling as a “get out of jail card.” They will still be responsible to pay their unpaid fines when it comes time to renew their licenses.