Bipartisan legislation announced this week in the state Senate would reduce third-degree driving with a suspended license — the state’s most commonly charged crime — from a misdemeanor offense to a civil infraction.
Senators Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and David Frockt, D-Seattle, said Senate Bill 6189 will allow prosecutors to focus on threats to public safety.
“Allowing prosecutors to focus on addressing the most dangerous public-safety threats like DUIs, distracted driving and aggressive motorists will make our roads and communities safer,” Fain said in a statement.
However, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said he doesn’t believe that would be the case.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he said.
Fain was previously a prosecutor in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office who worked on driving under the influence cases.
“Civil infractions are a much more appropriate way to handle those who do not or cannot pay a ticket for whatever reason,” he said. “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.”
A person’s license may become suspended in the third-degree because of a failure to pay a traffic ticket or late-payment fees.
If they’re caught driving while their license is suspended due to that failure to pay, they face the criminal charge.
“If that’s not going to happen, why is anyone going to pay their tickets?” Meyer asked, noting that courts already struggle to collect fines from civil infractions.
“And if they’re not going to pay their tickets, what’s the incentive to obey the traffic laws?” he said.
Proponents also said the criminal charges can cause long-ranging effects, making it harder for people convicted of DWLS to regain their licenses and pay off fines.
“The current law places a heavy burden on Washington residents who already have difficulty paying traffic fines,” Frockt said. “Criminal charges severely limit a person’s economic future, trapping them in a vicious cycle of unemployment and an inability to reinstate their driver license.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s report “Driven to Fail: The High Cost of Washington’s Most Ineffective Crime,” takes the same view.
Meyer countered that the state Department of Licensing already has programs designed to help people renew their suspended licenses while working to pay off fines. He suggested the state create an education program on those options.
Prosecuting DWLS as a criminal matter costs $42 million each year, according to the senators.
Some municipalities, such as Yakima and Seattle, already treat the offense as a civil infraction.
Meyer said DWLS is his office’s most prosecuted crime, but said he doesn’t view it as a burden on the office.
“I don’t necessarily look at it that way,” he said. “It’s our job.”
The bill is expected to receive a hearing later this month before the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.