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When and why the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs changed their position on ESSB 5226

At a press conference Tuesday, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D – Seattle) said that the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) did not fully support ESSB 5226 until an amendment from Sen. Annette Cleveland (D – Vancouver) was added. But after assessing public testimony offered by WASPC and following up with the organization to hear about how their stance on the bill developed, the Wire found that Sen. Cleveland’s amendment had no such impact.

ESSB 5226, removes the penalty of driver’s license suspension for failing to pay a ticket for a non-criminal traffic infraction. If individuals are caught driving with a suspended license, they may be charged with Driving While License Suspended – Third Degree,” or DWLS3, which is the most charged crime in Washington. DWLS3 charges have also been found to have an outsized impact on low income people and people of color.

By charging individuals who, for reasons both professional or personal, need to continue driving after getting their license suspended for failing to pay a ticket, advocates argue that the law criminalizes “driving while poor.”

WASPC testified against the bill at the bill’s first public hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee in February, which Pedersen chairs. They later changed their position on the bill, and eventually got behind it in full. This week, Pedersen said the WASPC shifted their position on the bill from “con” to “neutral” after Sen. Cleveland’s amendment was adopted.

Cleveland’s amendment provides that the court is not required to enter into a payment plan with an individual if their ticket has already been referred a collections agency; decreases the time period from 120 days to 90 days from the date of the infraction before the court can refer the ticket to a collections agency; authorizes the court to require a person who fails to pay under a payment plan to appear for a hearing and provide evidence of inability to pay; and authorizes driver’s license suspension for an individual who fails to appear at a hearing for a moving violation.

The portion above highlighted in bold, allowing license suspensions to continue for people who fail to appear in court for a hearing, is the factor which Pedersen said caused WASCP to change their tune on the bill.

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.”

Sen. Pedersen’s statement is partially inconsistent with the testimony provided by WASPC’s policy director, James McMahan, at a March 22 hearing in the House Transportation Committee, after the bill passed the Senate. McMahan testified that WASPC would support the bill “whether Sen. Cleveland’s amendment remains in the bill or whether Sen. Cleveland’s amendment comes off of the bill.”

The Wire followed up with McMahan today, who repeated it was not Cleveland’s amendment which caused WASPC to change its position, but rather Pedersen’s striker amendment, which first added the provision authorizing the court to suspend the license of an individual who fails to appear at a hearing.

Advocates have been pushing House Democrats to undo Cleveland’s amendment by adding language stipulating that even if a person fails to appear at a hearing, they would not have their license suspended if they subsequently enter into a payment plan with a court or collection agency. The original version of the bill contained language allowing for this payment plan alternative.

In response to advocates, Democratic legislators say the bill still succeeds in eliminating “driving while poor” because only individuals who fail to appear in court would be at risk of getting their license suspended, not individuals who simply cannot pay their ticket. Advocates counter that some individuals may not be able to appear in court for economic reasons, such as an inability to miss work.

The Cleveland amendment contained additional clarifying language, but the “failure to appear” language was first introduced in Pedersen’s striker amendment. McMahan said he had not even heard about Cleveland’s amendment when WASPC registered their support for the bill. But he did confirm, as Pedersen stated, that the “failure to appear” language was the factor that caused WASPC to shift its position on the bill. WASPC made a commitment to support the bill when they saw Pedersen’s striker.

From WASPC’s perspective, it is important that people understand that they cannot ignore a court summons. It is also their position that law enforcement should be taken out of what is, at its root, a financial issue. Police officers should not act as “revenue agents,” McMahan said.

Nevertheless, advocates maintain that the bill does not go far enough in decoupling poverty and punishment.

Lawmakers say they want to make public policy based on input from impacted people and communities, and in large part we’ve seen that taken to heart on other policing issues, but not here,” said Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, ACLU-WA’s Legislative Director. “They have that same opportunity right now, with this bill, which to us is an extension of how police involvement can impact people who are already marginalized. Yet, when it comes to issues of poverty, we don’t see the same type of compassionate legislative response. Instead, we see some lawmakers continue to ignore the voices of people who will be forced to live with the harmful consequences of debt-based license suspensions if this bill passes in its current form, and that’s not right.”

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