State to revamp 'poverty penalty' for low-income drivers

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The state is about to make dramatic changes to a law many call "driving while poor." It will soon be more difficult for prosecutors to suspend somebody's license for relatively minor traffic offenses.

Right now, a judge can suspend your driver's license for about 70 different offenses, some of them serious - and some minor, such as failure to dim your headlights.

About 300,000 Washington state driver's licenses are suspended right now. But critics say many of those people are suffering an injustice.

It all starts with a traffic ticket.

The driver never pays because he or she can't afford it. A judge then suspends the offender's driver's license. Critics of state law say that can be very unfair.

"It becomes a penalty for poverty - and not for the behavior underneath it," says Travis Stearns of the Washington Defender Association, who works with poor clients.

But relief is on the way. The state Department of Licensing is now making changes - deciding which relatively minor offenses should never lead to a suspended license, such as driving alone in the HOV lane or failing to dim your headlights.

"We're just updating the list of moving violations that's contained in the Washington Administrative Code," says Brad Benfield of the Department of Licensing.

The state Legislature last year passed a law that's leading to what many say is the long-overdue reform.

"Persons are put between a rock and a hard place where you're asked whether or not you want to drive to your job, or drive your children to hospital or the the doctor's office - or pay these tickets," says Stearns.

Stearns says taking away a low-income person's driver's license for minor offenses costs society more money in the end.

And if they drive anyway then get caught, it's expensive prosecution and jail.

"And that just makes it more likely you'll commit new crimes - and that's what the evidence shows," says Stearns.

Some taxpayers agree it's time we differentiate between failing to pay your ticket for "no proof of insurance" - and offenses that put others at risk.

"There are certain crimes that are worse than others - drunk driving and speeding are those," says taxpayer Todd Mitchell.

The Department of Licensing will have its new rules ready to go by June. In March, the state Supreme Court will hear the case of a man who is appealing his conviction for driving with a suspended license.