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Editorial: Unpaid traffic tickets shouldn’t bring loss of jobs

Suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines forces inequitable economic hardships on many.

By The Herald Editorial Board

No one would dispute that monetary fines — from a $136 speeding ticket on up to $2.6 million for violating state campaign financing laws — can be effective in keeping everyone in line. We can easily think of plenty we’d rather do with that $136 than send it to the court.

Yet, for many, those fines — if they go unpaid and lead to a suspended driver’s license — become more than an annoyance, more than incentive to obey speed limits and other traffic laws. They can force an onerous choice for some between forgoing a paying job or performing other daily tasks and breaking the law to an ever more serious degree by driving with a suspended license, risking further fines, more debt and even jail time.

Washington and 36 other states continue to suspend licenses for a range of reasons, including drunk or reckless driving, but also for failure to respond to a traffic ticket or pay a fine.

Recognizing the burden license suspensions have placed on thousands of Washington state drivers — often inequitably among low-income and racial minorities — State Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, has proposed legislation that ends the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines for traffic infractions.

Senate Bill 5226 has bipartisan support, including from area Sens. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood; and Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor.

Linking the suspensions to unpaid fines, Salomon said, during a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing earlier this month, is a poor way of encouraging traffic safety.

“To me it’s not an issue of public safety, it’s an issue of whether you can pay your tickets,” said Salomon, who has worked for 15 years as a defense attorney and public defender, largely addressing cases involving suspended licenses.

Instead, Salomon’s legislation would end suspensions for failure to pay or respond to a ticket or attend a requested hearing for traffic infractions. It would also authorize the state Department of Licensing to reinstate all driver’s licenses currently suspended for failure to pay. And it would better notify those receiving tickets of their ability to set up payment programs for fines owed.

Nate Jacob, a public defender in Jefferson County, agreed with Salomon’s reasoning during the hearing.

“The current law doesn’t just disproportionately affect the poor, it exclusively affects the poor. It criminalizes conduct that has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with a person’s ability to pay,” Jacob said.

The same is often experienced by Black Washington residents and other people of color, noted Juliana Tesfu, of Seattle. Tesfu cited statistics from 2015 that showed that Black drivers accounted for 51 percent of suspended license cases in Seattle Municipal Court, even though Blacks are only 9 percent of the city’s population.

There should be room made for amendments as the bill progresses. James McMahan, with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the law enforcement group doesn’t oppose ending suspensions for nonpayment of fines, but recommended that license suspensions for failing to respond to an infraction or failing to appear in court remain on the books. Those justifications for suspension are not matters of payment but are issues of response to a ticket or keeping a court date.

Opponents of the bill, notably several representatives of collection agencies in the state, argued that removing the threat of suspension would make it more difficult to collect fines, a significant source of revenue for many courts in the state.

But that impact overlooks the larger costs that pursuing suspended licenses cases have on law enforcement agencies, city and county prosecutors and courts, Jacob noted. Suspended license cases represent a third of most prosecutors’ caseloads, he said.

A 2019 study by the Brennan Center for Justice of similar laws in Texas and New Mexico found that counties in those states, in imposing and collecting those fines, spent more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue raised from fees and fines, more than 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes.

Concern for a potential loss of revenue from a drop in fine payments also overlooks the economic impact that preventing or frustrating the efforts of people trying to find or maintain employment has on the state. Put simply, the unemployed and underemployed are less able to pay taxes and contribute to the state and local economies.

It can be especially difficult for those in the state’s more rural areas to get to jobs and other destinations because of a lack of public transit in some communities, making a driver’s license even more necessary for employment.

The number of licenses restored in Washington state could be significant. Of the 13 states that have ended debt-based license suspensions in the United States, California has restored more than 450,000 licenses, Virginia more than 500,000 and Texas nearly 650,000.

Especially as the state eagerly looks forward to reopening the economy as the covid pandemic slowly retreats, it will be important to ease everyone’s path back to work and doubly important not to complicate anyone’s daily commute.

There’s also the point that having and keeping a job makes it easier to pay any fine owed.

Nobody likes to pay speeding tickets, but when choosing between that month’s rent and a fine, that choice shouldn’t cost someone a driver’s license, and then a job.

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