Proposed Washington State Legislation Falls Short of Meaningful Driver’s License Suspension Reform

Proposed Washington State Legislation Falls Short of Meaningful Driver’s License Suspension Reform

ESSB 5226 creates a dangerous precedent for other states. If adopted, this legislation will make Washington an outlier among states committed to reform.

By Martha Ramos and Priya Sarathy Jones

No one should lose their driver’s license because they cannot afford to pay a traffic ticket. We represent two organizations dedicated to changing the law to end debt-based license suspensions and ensure that poverty does not determine who can drive to work, take their kids to school, or shop for groceries.

Now we’re in the unexpected position of fighting to defeat a bill moving through the Washington Legislature that supporters claim will accomplish this goal.

It will not. 

When debt-based driving restriction reforms first gained momentum a few years ago, legislative proposals were generally straightforward — end the practice and don’t add additional restrictions — with varying degrees of best practices. However, in 2021 this movement is beginning to see legislatures eager to join the reform movement, but not willing to truly achieve the objectives of these reforms: Stop punishing people simply because they are unable to pay their court debt, without adding equally or more restrictive policies in place of those being removed. 

Washington’s bill, ESSB 5226, does not meet these objectives and falls short of the kind of meaningful reform necessary to end debt-based license suspensions and stop punishing people for driving while poor. 

What started as a solid policy proposal supported by our organizations and many others has been so watered down that it will likely maintain the status quo.

An 11th hour amendment to ESSB 5226 creates a massive loophole that leaves people who can least afford to pay fines and fees vulnerable to license suspensions. This amendment was passed behind closed doors, with zero input from the large community-based coalition that is working to change these laws. 

The suspensions at issue in ESSB 5226 begin with a minor moving violation, like failing to use a turn signal. Someone get a ticket — an annoyance for those who have the money to immediately pay, but a financial hardship for many Washingtonians. Unable to pay, they incur late fees, and their license is suspended due to outstanding debt. 

That suspension leaves people with a daunting choice: drive without a license and break the law, or skip work and other necessary trips that require driving. If someone is stopped by police without a license, they are charged with Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree (DWLS3) — Washington’s most commonly charged crime, which disproportionately impacts communities of color and young people. In 2020, some 44,000 people in Washington were charged with DWLS3. 

Originally, ESSB 5226 corrected these inequities but, as amended, the bill continues to penalize poverty. The Senate amendment allows the court to set a hearing if they don’t pay their ticket, and we know that many people will not be able to attend that hearing. Childcare, unpredictable work schedules and unreliable transportation make appearing in court difficult for people with limited resources. “Failure to pay” becomes “failure to appear”, resulting in a suspended license.

This sleight of hand negates the spirit and intention of ending suspensions for failure to pay. It will significantly reduce the impact of the bill on Washingtonians, leading many, if not most of those whose licenses would be restored under this bill, back into the cycle of poverty and punishment.  

Supporters point to the bill’s retroactive provision, which would restore driver’s licenses for thousands of Washingtonians. But that is only a one-time offer of relief. The drivers whose licenses would be restored by this bill would soon lose them again.

The legislation has so dramatically departed from its original intent, that if the bill passes in its current form, the Free to Drive campaign – a national coalition that is working to end debt-based license suspensions across the country — will not add Washington to its list of 15 states, including Oregon, California, Idaho and Mississippi, that have stopped this practice. 

ESSB 5226 creates a dangerous precedent for other states.  If adopted, this legislation will make Washington an outlier among states committed to reform.

Washington could also miss out on a bipartisan U.S. Senate proposal to provide federal funding to states that have ended debt-based license suspensions. 

Those of us who know or have experienced the devastation caused by driver’s license suspensions started this legislative session full of hope and energy. Washington appeared poised to join a nationwide movement to end a policy that criminalizes poverty rather than promoting public safety. 

But it is time to acknowledge that this bill, as amended, will not move us forward. We are far better off returning in the future with a bill that truly addresses the harms inflicted by debt-based license suspensions on people who are already struggling to survive.

For today, we are asking Washingtonians to tell your legislator to vote no on ESSB 5226.


Martha Ramos is a retired relicensing specialist with nearly a decade of experience helping people in Washington re-gain their suspended driver’s licenses. Ramos is also coordinator of the Washington State Relicensing Taskforce.

Priya Sarathy Jones is the national policy and campaigns director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which leads the national Free to Drive campaign.