Politics & Government

The state’s most commonly charged crime would be reduced if this bill passes

Two bills in the Washington Legislature would reduce driving while license suspended in the third degree – the state’s most commonly charged crime – to a civil infraction. They are intended to prevent people from getting criminal records for no other reason than not having enough money to pay the fine.
Two bills in the Washington Legislature would reduce driving while license suspended in the third degree – the state’s most commonly charged crime – to a civil infraction. They are intended to prevent people from getting criminal records for no other reason than not having enough money to pay the fine. AP

State lawmakers are considering bills that would decriminalize driving with a suspended license if the suspension was for failing to pay fines.

Bills in the House and the Senate are intended to prevent people from getting criminal records for no other reason than not having enough money to pay bills, according to one of the bills’ sponsors.

The bills, which were introduced last week with bipartisan support, would reduce driving while license suspended in the third degree – the state’s most commonly charged crime – to a civil infraction.

“Civil infractions are a much more appropriate way to handle those who do not or cannot pay a ticket for whatever reason,” Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said in a news release. “Criminal charges reduce a person’s ability to rent an apartment or be considered for the very job they would need to pay the original fine.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for decriminalizing the offense, saying it disproportionately affects the poor and minorities, is an excessive punishment and has cost the state $1.3 billion in court costs from 1994 to 2015.

If approved, the measures would have a limited effect in Yakima County, where prosecutors for at least a decade have allowed about 95 percent of defendants to plead guilty to a civil infraction rather than face a misdemeanor.

“We don’t want to pursue it as a criminal charge,” Brusic said.

Both House and Senate measures would classify the offense as a civil infraction, which does not go on one’s criminal record, and would carry only a $250 fine, or $50 if the defendant gets their license back.

Brusic said the only people who are still charged criminally are those who refuse to come in for their court dates or take care of the matter. The goal, he said, is to get the people to make a payment and work on restoring their licenses as soon as possible.

Fain’s Senate Bill 6189 would only affect those who are charged with third-degree driving with a suspended license. Those cases involve licenses suspended for failure to pay a fine or keep current on child-support payments.

Drivers are usually cited for the offense, but not placed under arrest.

Currently, it is a misdemeanor, which means up to 90 days in jail if convicted and fines reaching $1,000.

Both House and Senate measures would classify the offense as a civil infraction, which does not go on one’s criminal record, and would carry only a $250 fine, or $50 if the defendant gets their license back.

Yakima police Lt. Shawn Boyle, who oversees the department’s traffic division, said a lot of the citations are reduced to infractions as it is an easier fine to pay for some people.

“It shows some empathy,” Boyle said.

Boyle said the officer is taking a “wait and see” approach to legislation that would decriminalize the offense statewide.

In 2017, Yakima County District Court handled 670 third-degree driving while suspended cases, and 95 percent of them were handled as infractions, according to court staff. In the city of Yakima, 265 cases were filed in court, and of those 124 were reduced to infractions, according to Senior Assistant City Attorney Cynthia Martinez.

Martinez said the city only pursue a criminal charge if the defendant is a repeat offender or has another charge in addition to the suspended-license offense.

Attempts to contact legislators representing Yakima County were not successful, as they either did not return phone calls, or in the case of Rep. Tom Dent and Sen. Judy Warnick, both Moses Lake Republicans, had not seen the bill.

Warnick, however, said she would be concerned about having people without licenses driving on the road if the bill were passed. She said people who do not have licenses often lack insurance.

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