This is the third of five blog posts I'll make today regarding the 15 bills I've prime-sponsored that have passed out of committee. A few of them have already passed the Senate; others are lined up for a possible vote on the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 6284 would decrease our criminalization of “driving while poor.” For several years, I’ve worked to reduce the burden on people who are criminalized for “driving while poor.” The crime of Driving While License Suspended in the 3rd Degree is the lowest level of driving with a suspended license. It’s committed primarily by people failing to appear in traffic court or paying a ticket, whose license is suspended by the court, but who continue to drive and are stopped again. For example, let’s say that I’ve been cited for not having current tabs on my car or for driving without appropriate vehicle insurance. Maybe I don’t have insurance or current tabs because I can’t afford it, or maybe I’ve just forgotten to keep things current. If I fail to show up in court to contest the citation or pay the fine (upwards of $500 for driving without insurance), my license eventually will be suspended. I could also have my license suspended if I’ve already worked out a payment plan with the court, but I’m unable to keep current with it because I’ve lost my job, had my hours cut, or just need the money to pay for basic necessities.
The actual suspension of a license is not criminal; it’s a purely civil matter. But if I get caught driving while my license is suspended, I have crossed over into the criminal realm. You can’t drive on a suspended license, regardless of the underlying reason for the suspension.
If I am then caught driving my car with a suspended license, I could be charged with the crime of DWLS3, resulting in more fines and a longer suspension of my driver’s license. People with enough money can just pay the fines and get their license unsuspended, though of course some of scofflaws don’t pay for reasons of their own and either stop driving or continue to drive illegally. But a lot of folks just don’t have the resources to pay their fines and/or deal with the court process, and end up with a criminal charge and increased fines. Plus, my ability to earn money to pay my fines and take care of my family may well be inhibited by the fact that I can’t legally drive my car because I risk getting arrested and booked into jail because I had to drive to work, take my children to school, or my ailing parent to the doctor. That’s why I call the charge of DWLS3 “driving while poor.” Additionally, the high volume of cases creates a burden on local courts through case loads and court costs.
I’ve succeeded in making some changes to this system. One example is last year’s successful Senate Bill 5195, which created a diversion program for motorists who are pulled over while driving with a suspended license in the third degree. A diversion program saves courts time and money and helps violators, some of whom can’t afford to pay in a lump sum, set up a payment plan. This is money that in some cases the courts would have never received without a payment plan.
As introduced, SB 6284 would have exempted all non-safety related civil infractions from the requirement that the Department of Licensing (DOL) suspend the license if the driver doesn’t appear in court or fails to pay the fine. Instead of the license being suspended, the fine would be automatically subject to collection action if not paid. It would still have allowed for payment plans, but like now, those plans have to be arranged with the court and the offender is under court order to abide by the plan.
In its current form, the bill is expressly limited to non-moving infractions, meaning that for those violations the DOL will not suspend the license for nonpayment, and instead the payment is subject to collection action. A person who gets a ticket for something like expired tabs or another non-safety issue is not subject to having his or her license suspended if they are unable to pay. The fine will be collected via collection actions. There’s an effective date of April 2013 to allow for the reprogramming of DOL’s ancient computer system.
The City of Seattle undertook this issue locally to stop suspending licenses for certain infractions and they saw significant savings in court and law enforcement costs. Along with saving money, they are able to actually collect more fines. This is a win-win bill.
Senate Bill 6285 would increase the use of geothermal resources as an alternative energy source. This legislation would assist our state in developing our natural geothermal resources to use as a clean energy alternative. This is even more important since the passage of Initiative 937, which sets a requirement of 15% renewables by 2015. There are several areas around the state with geothermal resources that may be commercially viable, one in eastern Snohomish County and one in Skamania County, both near the crest of the Cascades. This bill would align state law on geothermal resources to make it easier for the Department of Natural Resources to lease land for exploration and development. I’ve received input from state agencies, environmentalists, and folks from the geothermal industry, and the current bill satisfies most stakeholders.
Senate Bill 6376 would aid law enforcement to solve crimes by increasing the authority of the forensic investigations council to assist local jurisdictions in the identification of human remains. This bill would allow the Washington State Forensic Investigations Council to authorize the expenditure of up to $210,000 per biennium from the death investigations account for the purpose of assisting local jurisdictions to secure forensic anthropology services or other testing to determine the identity of human remains. The council contracts with a county coroner or medical examiner to secure the required staff, facility storage, and equipment. This service wouldn’t incur any state costs because programs would be funded through existing fees.