Washington Lawmakers Consider Decriminalizing Driving Without A License

Jan 29, 2018

Driving with a suspended license is a gross misdemeanor in Washington state and can lead to hefty fines and even jail time. But some say those fines are a burden that low-income drivers can’t bear.

Now, lawmakers are considering lowering the penalties.

Virla Spencer is with the Center for Justice in Spokane. She said the law disproportionately affects low-income people who have to choose between driving to work without a license or losing out on income.

“If they end up being pulled over and they get a ticket, they don’t resolve the ticket within a timely matter, it is then referred over to the Department of Licensing and their driver’s license is suspended,” Spencer said. “They end up going to jail behind a choice on feeding their families.”

Elysa Hovard fought to stay out of homelessness by working and paying her way through community college. She told lawmakers at a Senate hearing that as she was doing that, she was charged with driving with a suspended license in the third degree.

“The impacts on my life have been pretty demeaning and demoralizing,” Hovard said. “I had to check on job applications that I was convicted of a crime because it is a misdemeanor.”

Now, Hovard is the Director of Outreach at Everett-based Cocoon House, a non-profit which battles homelessness. She said many of the people she works have similar struggles.

“They need to drive to get to work or to transport their kids and they get charged with driving on suspended in the third degree,” Hovard said.

Lawmakers are considering changing the least serious offense, driving without a license in the third degree, from a misdemeanor to a traffic infraction with a $250 penalty. But opponents say there should be serious consequences for driving without a license.

R.W. Buzzard is the presiding judge at the Lewis County District Court. He said there are rules in place that allow low-income offenders to avoid court fees and jail time.

“All people have to do is ask,” Buzzard said. “Take that first step of personal responsibility and ask: Can I have some time to pay this infraction?”

If the measure passes, offenders could ask that the $250 fine be reduced to just $50 once they’ve earned their license back.