Too Poor To Drive: Suspended Driver’s License Case Will Be Argued In Supreme Court

Stephen C. Johnson will be arguing his criminal case in Washing State Supreme Court, regarding a 2008 third-degree driving while on a suspended license conviction, on March 19, 2013. Johnson contends that the crime is simply the government’s way of punishing those who “drive while poor,” as licenses are ceremoniously suspended when drivers are unable to afford repayment of traffic fines.

The case initially started when the 64-year-old Randle, Lewis County man was pulled over in 2007 and received an infraction for driving without a valid license. Johnson went to court and contested the ticket. The $538 fee was reduced to $260. Johnson, who is disabled and homeless, and hadn’t been steadily employed since 1976, said he could not afford to pay it. The Department of Licensing suspended his license, even though he did not technically have one, making it a crime for him to drive.

Johnson was forced to walk from the home he stayed in, five miles to the nearest bus stop, in hopes of catching one of the three that circulated daily. The only way he could be mobile was to drive. One year later, Johnson was pulled over by a Lewis County sheriff’s deputy and arrested for driving while license suspended, a misdemeanor. He was booked into the Lewis County Jail where he stayed for four days.

After a few appellate legal hurdles, Johnson’s case will finally be brought before the state Supreme Court.

The incentive behind temporarily rescinding a driver’s license is to insure the fines are paid. However, with precarious economic times, needs often supersede wants, making the decision as to what bills to pay difficult. Including unplanned fines for traffic violations. People still need to be able to get back and forth to their jobs.

In the state of Washington if a driver receives too many moving violations within a specific period of time their license is suspended or they are subject to one year of probation. If they violate probation, their license can be suspended for a longer period of time.

There are additional fees that come as a result of having a license suspended, as in the state of Washington there is a $75 reissue fee for the first offense. The cost doubles with each subsequent offense if caught driving on a suspended license.

The Seattle Times reports on a state level, 33 percent of all misdemeanor criminal cases are related to a suspended or revoked driver’s license. For Lewis County, one of the counties with the highest unemployment rates in the state, that percentage is nearly doubled. Most of the 300,000 Washington residents with suspended licenses that prohibit them from driving have unpaid traffic tickets. If Johnson wins his appeal, the precedent case could allow the reinstatement of thousands of licenses in the state of Washington, to those who lost them due to unpaid fines.

“Most are not bad people; they just don’t have any money,” Johnson said.

Kevin Hochhalter, Johnson’s attorney says driving while license suspended is the most-charged crime in the state, and the large majority of those are poor people. He argues that Johnson’s suspension, along with thousands of others, is unconstitutional because the state imposed a criminal sanction on an individual for failing to pay a fine without making an inquiry into the financial situation of the individual. Hochhalter says:

“People get caught in this endless cycle. They can’t pay their ticket, their license gets suspended. In order to pay their ticket, they need to work. They drive to work, even though they shouldn’t, and at some point they get caught by police and arrested for it. In turn, the arrest results in an even bigger fine, about $1,500. If not paid, fines can double when they go to collections.”

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