Highest State Court To Review Challenge To Suspended Driving Third Degree CaseJonathan Rands
Police are busy across Whatcom County and Skagit County writing traffic tickets for various traffic and non-moving infractions on a daily basis. When citizens fail to pay traffic tickets Washington’s
Police are busy across Whatcom County and Skagit County writing traffic tickets for various traffic and non-moving infractions on a daily basis. When citizens fail to pay traffic tickets Washington’s Department of Licensing has been taking licenses as punishment and making it a misdemeanor crime – Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree – to drive until the traffic tickets (and any penalties for non-payment) have been paid. Each year I see hundreds of individuals arrested in Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine, Lynden and throughout Whatcom County and Skagit County because they simply could not pay their traffic fines. The reason for these arrests is under scrutiny in the Washington State courts.
The Washington State Supreme Court has agreed to review the appeal of Stephen Johnson regarding his conviction for driving with a Suspended License in the Third Degree. The Supreme Court will review whether Mr. Johnson’s license was lawfully suspended by the Department of Licensing pursuant to RCW 46.20.342 and whether the suspension of his license violated Equal Protection.
Mr. Johnson is a man of limited means and had a 1985 Toyota truck that he drove in April of 2007 without a valid operator’s permit (license) and was ticketed by police. Operating a motor vehicle without a valid operator’s permit (license) constitutes a traffic infraction so long as you have a valid piece of identification and your privilege to drive has not been taken away by the state. Mr. Johnson went to court to contest the traffic infraction, but lost and was ordered to pay a fine. Mr. Johnson could not pay the fine and on November 1, 2007 his license was suspended by the Department of Licensing.
In September 2008 Mr. Johnson was pulled over and arrested for Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree because he was not able to pay the fine from the 2007 traffic ticket. He was convicted at trial.
The statute that supposedly gives the Department of Licensing authority to suspend a license for not paying a fine, RCW 46.20.342, does not actually list failing to pay a fine as a reason to take away one’s license; rather, the statute states one of the reasons for suspension or revocation of a person’s driver’s license is because “the person has failed to respond to a notice of traffic infraction, failed to appear at a requested hearing, violated a written promise to appear in court, or has failed to comply with the terms of a notice of traffic infraction or citation.” See RCW 46.20.342(c)(iv). The problem for a huge number of citizens who are arrested for Driving While Suspended in the Third Degree, and like Mr. Johnson’s case, is they have actually done the things required by the law but were simply not able to pay as the court had instructed.
The Supreme Court will review whether the statute’s language means that the Department of Licensing can take your privilege to drive for not paying even if you have requested a hearing, appeared at the hearing and done everything else the traffic ticket told you to do. This case may have a huge impact on court caseloads and arrests by law enforcement as suspended driving cases are incredibly numerous in the court system. Additionally, it may be another limitation on law enforcement’s ability to seize and search Washington citizens.
If you find yourself with a suspended license in the third degree, second degree or first degree you need to consult with an attorney to remedy the problem. If you have been arrested and charged with a misdemeanor crime in Whatcom County, Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine or Lynden make sure you have competent, affordable representation available to help you through this maze.