Relicensing court client Brandon Stowers is trying to get his driver's license back after not paying multiple traffic tickets. Photo by Austin Jenkins
BURIEN, Wash. – In Washington, nearly 300,000 drivers currently have suspended licenses -– not because they've driven drunk or committed a hit-and-run, but because they failed to pay their traffic tickets.
You're about to meet three of them. Like a lot of people in their situation, they continued to drive. And that has led to more tickets, more debt and even jail.
But drivers who want to clear their debts and get their licenses back must run a gauntlet that includes collection agents and a patchwork system of courts.
Brandon Stowers sits on a wooden bench outside a King County District courtroom in Burien. He's here for relicensing court. It's a special court for people who have lost their driver's license because of unpaid traffic tickets.
Stowers says his troubles started when he stuffed a ticket in his glove box.
"That's exactly what happened," Stowers says. "I put it in my glove compartment and forgot all about it."
That was several years -– and several tickets -– ago. Now Stowers — an unemployed father of three — has come to relicensing court to begin to dig out from a mess he admits he got himself into.
"It's very, very, very important (that you get your license back)," Stowers stresses. "I need my license back bad."
Relicensing Court is Stowers' best hope. Like drug court, it's a diversion program for people who have been stopped by a cop while driving on a license that was suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets.
It's called driving while suspended in the third degree. The prosecutor agrees to hold off filing a criminal charge if the defendant agrees to a repayment plan.
"We understand that some people get themselves so far into debt that getting out of debt is extremely difficult," says Maggie Nave, head of the District Court unit of the King County Prosecutor's office.
She says relicensing court frees up prosecutors for more serious cases. But it also gives a suspended driver a way to get their license back sooner.
"After he has started to make some payments, then the holds on his license are released by the court," Nave explains. "And that means he can get his license reissued while he's paying off his tickets."
That's exactly what 22-year old Sandy Seak is counting on. She recently got stopped for driving on a suspended license and for no insurance.
"The tickets are just stacking up and having to drive and look over my shoulder is just uncomfortable," she says.
Seak says her troubles began when she was 17. She got a ticket for a car accident, but never paid the fine.
Seak admits she was young and irresponsible then. Now she's a mother and wants to clear her record. The problem is she owes nearly $3,000 on half-a-dozen outstanding tickets.
But her only income is about $800 a month in unemployment.
"My situation is because I'm poor," Seak says. "If I had that money then it would be the first thing that I take care of and I would have my license back."
Seak hopes she can work off some of her fines through community service.
So how many Sandy Seaks there are out there? And what percentage of traffic tickets go unpaid?
That's what I asked the court administrators in Washington's two most populous counties -– King and Pierce. They ran a special report and the results were strikingly similar. In any given year, up to 25 percent of tickets end up in collections.
Tim is another relicensing court defendant. He doesn't want us to use his last name. But he's a married father of two, an out-of-work union electrician who's already on the verge of losing his house.
And he's just gotten sticker shock from a collection agency representative. He owes nearly $10,000 in fines, fees and interest.
"Here I sit with $10,000 in frigging traffic fines, he says. "It's just a nightmare."
Tim admits taking care of his 15 unpaid tickets just wasn't a priority until he got stopped in Montana and thrown in jail. Standing outside the courthouse, he tells me he had to ask his mom for bail money.
"I'm a 50 year old man almost," he says. "Wouldn't it make you feel pretty dismal if you had to ask your mother for something of that nature?"
These three drivers you've just met are actually the lucky ones. They live in a county with a relicensing court. But only a handful of Washington jurisdictions offer this option – most do not.
Court officials tell me relicensing court clients tend to gain a significant advantage because they can get better repayment terms from the collection agencies.
But even relicensing courts have their limitations. Court jurisdictions are like a patchwork across the state.
Take Judge Mark Eide. He presides over King County relicensing court. But he has no authority to reduce and consolidate fines from most of the county's 39 cities, much less another county.
"It is rather inefficient to have people go to multiple different courts to try to take care of getting their license back," Eide says.
Yet that's often what happens. These cases also consume a lot of court resources. One-third of misdemeanor court filings in Washington –- one-third — are for driving while suspended for failure to pay citations. That's according to a 2008 study by Washington's Office of Public Defense.
"It's a victimless crime and it's a crime of poverty," says Bob Boruchowitz a former longtime public defender turned law professor at Seattle University.
He also says there's evidence that minorities are more likely to have their licenses suspended for not paying their traffic fines.
Boruchowitz argues it's time for Washington to decriminalize driving while suspended in the third degree.
"It's not a good thing to ignore the ticket, but it shouldn't be a crime," he argues. "Why should we put somebody in jail for ignoring a ticket? What we ought to do is educate people that they have options."
Like working off the ticket through community service. Or getting on a payment plan.
Don Pierce heads the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He supports diversion programs, but disagrees with Boruchowitz on decriminalization.
"I think he's wrong," Pierce retorts. "It isn't just a crime of poverty."
Pierce says there are scofflaws out there who need the threat of jail.
"If we totally decriminalize they can simply tear the ticket up right in front of the officer's face and drive away and there's nothing we can do about it and I don't think that serves the general public."
The Washington legislature has so far rejected the idea of decriminalization. But this year did pass two related laws.
One requires that all traffic tickets include a notice that says if you can't afford to pay the ticket you can get on a payment plan. The other clarifies that prosecutors can send these cases to diversion.
As for the three drivers we met earlier. I recently checked in with them. All three tell me relicensing court has put them on the road to getting out of debt and getting back their license to drive.
On the Web:
King County Relicensing Program:
Traffic Tickets in Washington:
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