By Carmen Best / For The Herald
As a former police chief and law enforcement officer for more than 30 years, keeping our communities safe is personal. But decades of so-called “tough on crime” policies have created a justice system that all too frequently punishes people for being poor.
One prime example? Suspending driver’s licenses because people can’t afford to pay the fines for noncriminal traffic infractions, such as having a broken taillight. Without a driver’s license, many people can’t get to work, so the suspension makes their financial situation — the reason for not paying the fine in the first place — even worse. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have stopped such suspensions, and it’s time for Washington state to join them.
For so many families, a driver’s license is a lifeline to get to work, bring kids to school, take care of family members, and contribute to our communities. If someone makes a mistake and gets ticketed for something as simple as failing to signal when turning and does not have the means to pay a ticket, they can lose their license, just because they can’t afford the fine. If that individual then drives to get to work and gets pulled over, they risk going to jail. That means some Washingtonians are forced to make an impossible choice: risk being incarcerated for doing what is necessary to pay the bills or be prevented from putting food on the table and making ends meet. All this for driving with a suspended license due to an inability to pay a fine; not due to any public safety rationale.
License suspensions are also a drain on our justice system: They pull prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officials away from the serious crimes that truly do need our attention. So much so that, in 2015, Washington state estimated state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with driver’s license suspensions alone. License suspensions for “failure to pay” do not protect our public, but rather strain our courts and over-criminalize our community members.
As we begin the long road of recovery from the pandemic, changing these laws and ending this cycle of criminalization is more important than ever. Prior to covid-19, almost 1 in 4 Washington residents were struggling to make ends meet. Since Washington’s first lockdown in March, more than 330,000 Washingtonians have lost their jobs. And yet, we have an active policy punishing those who cannot afford fines and fees. By removing the ability to drive to and from work, we push people further into financial insecurity and cut off their access to stable employment.
Now is the time for critical change to our driver’s license suspension policies, and Senate Bill 5226 offers a chance to create the compassionate and balanced reform our community needs, while keeping people safe.
Sponsored by Sens. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, and Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and passed in the Senate with support from lawmakers on both side of the aisle, this bipartisan legislation stops the suspension of driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to public safety, while strengthening accountability for those who continue to commit infractions. The bill eliminates “failure to pay” as cause for driver’s license suspension in non-criminal traffic infractions, modifies traffic tickets to allow an individual to admit responsibility and attest they can’t afford the fine, and empowers the courts to set up payment plans or waive traffic infraction fines and fees (unless expressly prohibited from waiver by state law). Critically, this bill will hold drivers who break the law accountable, particularly those who commit multiple or criminal infractions. Currently, it takes six moving traffic infractions in a year to get a driver’s license suspended. Under the new law, a driver’s license would be temporarily suspended following three such infractions in a year or four within two years.
All three states around Washington have already eliminated failure to pay as reasons for suspending driver’s licenses. Twelve states, from Mississippi to Virginia, and Washington, D.C., don’t suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay. These reforms are not about party politics; they are about justice and public safety.
SB 5226 offers a balanced approach: it offers greater accountability for those who commit moving traffic violations, while ending driver’s license suspension as a punishment for poverty, and will allow law enforcement to spend more time on the serious crimes that Washingtonians care about.
The purpose of our justice system is to keep our communities safe; to protect each and every person’s ability to wake up in the morning, go to work, provide for their family, and live with dignity. Passing this bill will keep Washingtonians working and allow law enforcement to focus on what they do best: protecting public safety.
Carmen Best served as Seattle Police Department’s Chief of Police between 2018 and 2020. Best is currently a contributor for MSNBC and a law enforcement analyst for KING-5 News. She is also a member of the national coalition Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. Best lives in Snohomish County.