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Minor traffic infractions may escape license suspension

OLYMPIA - Pay for "not clicking it" or pay the electric bill?

For many, the dilemma seems easy, but for some a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt lurks further down their list of urgent obligations.

Unless, of course, it means a license suspension.

A bill to help low-income people from having to fear the harsh effect of failure to pay a minor traffic infraction is advancing in the state legislature and is awaiting a Senate Rules Committee vote to move on to floor action.

Prime sponsor, Sen. Adam Kline (D-37th District, Seattle) has been working with state agencies to come up with a plan that would exchange license suspension in the third degree by instead sending ticket fines to collection agencies.

Current law allows the Department of Licensing to suspend driving privileges for those who don't pay traffic infractions, fail to request a hearing, don't show up for court or fail to comply with the terms of a "moving violation" determination.

This piece of proposed law would require the licensing department to define exactly what offenses fall under moving and non-moving violations categories. The Washington State Patrol, the office of public defenders and the administrative office of the courts would also be included in this definitive process.

Kline's bill, substitute Senate bill 6284, would separate third-degree offenses into two categories: infractions on driving performance, such as speeding, reckless driving and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, from all other violations deemed "non-moving" infractions.

These secondary violations could include a broken taillight, a parking ticket and a non-use of seatbelt ticket.

"Why should we take people's licenses and put them in jail for not paying because they don't have any money?" Kline asked. "Don't get me wrong, they still have to pay it, we're just not putting them in jail because of it."

Many low-income citizens in Kline's district, he noted, can't afford to pay a $120 to $140 fine and, as a result, get their licenses suspended. Those people who drive with suspended licenses could be charged with misdemeanors or face the possibility of arrest.

Arrest is only one negative effect of a license suspension. For some, such as Raymond Brown, resident of Renton, job loss may be a more dramatic consequence.

Brown received a seatbelt ticket for riding as a passenger in a '71 Cutlass - which was not manufactured with seatbelts - and didn't pay it. Nor did he request a hearing because he had no way to get back to Wenatchee, the location of the issued ticket. As a result he lost his license.

Brown said that, at the time, he worked at Western Trailer Repair as a delivery driver and once his company found out, he lost about a week's worth of work. Today, his license is still suspended because he was laid off right before he was able to make his last payment.

Capt. Jason Berry of the Washington State Patrol concurs with the section of the bill that divides infractions into two categories because license suspension allows law enforcement to hold bad drivers accountable.

"If you don't pay your dog tags or pay child support or even a minor-in-possession ticket, your license is suspended," said Berry. "We agree that those should be stripped off and only things that are related to your ability to drive be attached to your license."

Bob Cooper, representative of the Washington Defender Association and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, testified at a public hearing on the bill earlier this week that, while he supports the underlying issue of "driving while poor," the updated version fails to include all the stakeholders and that the bill needs more work.

Some legislators may be wary of passing this bill because it would have a fiscal affect on the Department of Licensing, which could face an estimated $1.3 million over a six-year period to implement.

However, according to Kline, the major expense district and community courts face in prosecution is from driving-while-license-suspended cases.

Through cutting jail time and reducing the use of public defenders for these types of proceedings, local governments are estimated to save $36.4 million dollars in the long run.

Kline explained that there's a small fraction of third-degree cases the district and lower courts face, but those prosecutions are costly. "Even if we take 20 percent of those [cases], that's a significant relief to the courts. They wish we did more," said Kline.

If passed, the Department of Licensing must adopt and maintain rules by Nov. 1 that would further define moving violations, with full implementation to take effect June 1, 2013.

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