March 21, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 12

News

Bill downgrades some traffic citations to civil offenses

By Rosette Royale , Assistant Editor

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People facing certain types of traffic tickets could soon get some good news from state lawmakers. Under a new bill, if you can’t afford to pay the tickets, you won’t be considered a criminal.

On March 8, the legislature passed Senate Bill 6284, which mandates that drivers who fail to pay tickets for some traffic violations will only face a civil offense. Failure to respond to or attend a traffic hearing for those non-moving violations will also be considered a civil matter.

Currently, these actions automatically lead to a criminal charge and suspension of license, which can lead to criminal charges for people who drive after their licenses are suspended.

Efforts by Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes inspired legislators to take action. Shortly after taking office in 2010, Holmes ordered the city to undertake a more measured approach in confronting those who missed traffic hearings or didn’t pay traffic tickets and drove on a suspended license.

Holmes said pursuing these violations as criminal acts not only targeted poor people, it cost the city money. According to the city attorney’s office, not targeting these violations produced an annual savings of $212,000.

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates that, by not suspending licenses for all unpaid tickets, the Department of Licensing (DOL) could save roughly $1 million a year, while local governments could save up to $36 million a year. The new bill also permits the DOL to obtain unpaid fines through debt collection, wage garnishment or property lien procedures.

According to John Schochet, policy advisor to the city attorney, the new bill will lower the number of suspended driver’s licenses. “There will no longer be suspensions for failure to pay tickets that aren’t defined as ‘moving violations,’” he said.

The DOL will still have to decide, Schochet said, which traffic violations will be considered non-moving and thus not lead to license suspensions for nonpayment. Right now, drivers with unpaid parking fines, even those in collection, do not have their licenses suspended, said Schochet.

Even while numerous violations stand to be decriminalized, the legislation mandates that reckless or drunk drivers, uninsured drivers who get into accidents and people with a large number of tickets will still have their licenses suspended.

Legislators have sent the bill to Gov. Gregoire. If she signs it, the legislation would take effect June 1, 2013.

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