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Coalition of advocates continue pressing Democrats to change bill on debt-based license suspensions

A coalition of 61 organizations, led by the ACLU of Washington, is continuing to press Democrats to make changes to Senate Bill 5226, legislation that aims to eradicate debt-based license suspensions.

In a letter this week to House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and members of the Rules Committee, the coalition urged House Democrats to add “minor clarifying language” before approving the legislation.

The version of ESSB 5226 that was voted out of the Senate still allows for the continued use of license suspension to coerce debt payments from drivers. We understand this is not the intent of the legislation, and minor clarifying amendments can ensure that driver’s licenses are not suspended for failing to pay fines and fees for civil moving violations, ensuring that public safety is the focus of our state’s scarce criminal justice resources — not punishing people who are ‘driving while poor,'” reads the letter.

Advocates have asked that House Democrats reverse an amendment introduced by Sen. Annette Cleveland (D – Vancouver) that would allow the court to suspend the licenses of individuals who fail to appear at a hearing for a traffic ticket.

The amendment authorizes the court to require a person who fails to pay a ticket under a payment plan to appear for a hearing, and it does not require the court to enter into a payment plan with an individual if the court has already referred the matter for enforcement action by a collections agency.

The coalition has requested that Democrats either repeal the Cleveland amendment outright or add the following modifications (highlighted in red) to section 4 of the bill.

At a Tuesday press conference, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D – Seattle), who chairs the Senate committee where the bill originated, said the bill still succeeds in decriminalizing “driving while poor.”

I want to draw a pretty strong line between the failure to pay to because of your economic status and the failure to appear, which is about respect for the court – not coming to court when required to by legal process, that is a super important line for the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, who shifted when we took failure to appear and failure to report out of the bill in Law and Justice; they shifted from ‘con’ to ‘neutral.’ When we took up the floor amendment that Sen. Cleveland proposed, they become wholehearted supporters.”

For Pedersen, this bill is an opportunity to address a longstanding policy goal: “People have been trying to change this law that just doesn’t work for as long as I’ve been in the Legislature. Now we have a proposal that cuts right to the core of the problem, which is to say we’re not going to use the criminal law against people who can’t pay their traffic tickets. The bill absolutely accomplishes that.”

Thus far, key House Democrats have been unreceptive to the idea of making changes that would counteract the amendment, which they say is necessary to ensuring the bill has enough votes to pass. Rep. David Hackney (D – Tukwila) said the bill will result in 64,000 people being able to immediately have their suspended licenses reinstated. Another approximately 46,000 people annually, Hackney said, would not become suspended in future years as compared to current law.

But advocates say those numbers and the line drawn by Pedersen – between failure to pay a ticket and failure to appear in court – belie the shortcomings of the amended legislation.

We believe the number of people supporters say would be helped by the bill in its current form is misleading,” said a spokesperson for the ACLU. “As is, ESSB 5226 replaces failure to pay a ticket with failure to appear for a court hearing as the basis for license suspensions. While it is true that some 60,000 people will be eligible to have their licenses reinstated, which is something the coalition supports, this is only a temporary fix and licenses could be suspended again in the future. The new definition of failure to appear will continue to penalize people with limited resources who would remain vulnerable to license suspensions. For many, taking time off work to appear in court has a real cost – in lost wages or risk to their employment – that they likely cannot afford. And the basis for these new hearings will still be about whether a person has paid the ticket or not.”

The ACLU of Washington also says that it unclear whether the current bill would result in 46,000 fewer license suspensions per year, as supporters claim, since the data used to reach this conclusion does not incorporate the new failure to appear category.

Advocates have not gone as far as to oppose the amended bill entirely.

The bill is currently in rules awaiting a floor vote.

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