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Suspended License? No Problem!

How to clear up court debt and get your license back in Washington State

· DWLS 3,Suspended License,Washington State,Court Debt,Collections agencies

"I can't drive because court debt suspended my license. How do I get my license back?"

It's astonishing how many resources Washington State counties put into prosecuting crimes associated with our regressive “financial responsibility” laws. I am constantly surprised by how resigned clients are to forever having a suspended license. They probably watched John Oliver's piece on legal financial obligations (LFOs) and threw in the towel! Indeed, the practice in most courts is to recognize the person will never be able to pay the debt they owe in LFOs, plead them guilty to driving while license suspended, impose more fines, and let them go on their way with minimal or no jail time. What an abysmal mess! No wonder most clients I meet are usually so hopeless!

Debt from criminal convictions.

Luckily, the law, our courts, and State Legislature are starting to catch on. In 2015 the Washington State Supreme Court decided State v. Blazina. Prosecutors intent on grinding working and poor people into the dirt with LFOs have had their ears ringing ever since. That case held that courts have an independent obligation to ask defendants about their ability to pay non-mandatory LFOs at sentencing. If the court determines the defendant has no present or future ability to pay, and meets the criteria for indigency under GR 34 then courts should seriously question the imposition of LFOs. Many courts balked at the notion and found a myriad of work arounds to keep the cash flowing.

In 2016 the Washington State Supreme Court decided City of Richland v. Wakefield which clarified the rules about debt forgiveness, who qualifies as indigent, and the prohibition on court debt getting paid out of Social Security monies. No you cannot impose LFOs on a disabled deeply impoverished person on Social Security Disability they said- as shocking as this news was to a professional caste where the buy-in typically costs over $100,000 - the new roadmap to LFOs in our state had been cemented.

In 2018 Washington's Legislature passed House Bill 1783 which established new rules courts had to follow before imposing LFOs on indigent people. Indigency is defined as anyone receiving government benefits, is involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, or has income below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. See subsection (3)(a)-(c). If a defendant is poor, the bill disallows courts from imposing costs, and conviction fees. It also required courts to allow for payment plans. Finally, the 2018 LFO law strengthened a defendant's right to remit fines and fees. See subsection (4)

Then, in September of that same year our State Supreme Court decided State v. Ramirez , which cleaned house on this issue. Among other things the Court held that the new law invalidates the imposition of LFOs on the poor at sentencing, no matter whether they may be able to pay some time in the future or not. Up to this point, a talisman for courts resistant to this development in the law had been "Well, can you work in the future, right?". Clients eager to be in the court's good graces would usually bend over backward to paint a bright economic future for themselves. The court would then use this to impose fines/fees/costs like in the good old days. Addressing this scenario directly, our State Supreme Court in Ramirez said not so fast.

What is the take home? If you make under 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, receive public assistance such as food stamps, SSI, SSDI, or are disabled, then courts may not impose non-mandatory LFOs on you at sentencing. In most district court cases, including DUI, this means you should walk out of court owing $0. In felony cases many times LFOs can be as low as $500.

Most importantly, you qualify for your prior criminal case debt to be forgiven. This is called remission and is available under RCW 10.73.160(4) and requires filing motions and attending a hearing. Using this procedure a debtor or their attorney can erase thousands in court debt with the right filings and explanation to a judge.

Remember, what I have discussed so far only applies to criminal case court debt.

Infraction debt & collections agencies.

Infractions that involve moving violations, such as speeding tickets, can hold up your license too. Inexplicably, this variety of debt is harder to clear up. Not only can this debt rack up service fees and interest when it goes to collections, but such agencies bundle all your debts together. Rarely will they allow you to pay for just the moving violations so you can free up your license. Instead, collections agencies lump all your court debts into one unit and require an oftentimes outrageous first balloon payment of ⅓ to ½ the total debt before they will send the department of licensing notice that you are on a payment plan so your license gets freed up. What an abuse of a power I'm sure legislature never intended to give away!

Nevertheless, most courts allow those who owe infraction debt to have it pulled from collections and put on a payment plan. The process for setting this up varies from court to court. Practices range from sending an informal e-mail, to a strict requirement that the debtor or her attorney file motions and show up for a hearing. It's usually worth the hassle though. Monthly minimums with courts are usually well below what collections agencies charge. $25-50 is usually what I encounter. As well, you can always ask the court to forgive the debt by making an argument analogous to Wakefield and Blazina and Ramirez which apply to criminal case debts. While most judges will roll their eyes, some may see the equity issue at play. The point is, there is a lot you can do to get on top of infraction debt without having to play ball with exploitative collections agencies.


License Express tool at the fantastic department of licensing website. Use this to check the status of your license and to see what cases, infractions, or other debts are holding up your license.

LFO calculator developed for the Washington State Supreme Court's Minority and Justice Commission. Use this to see whether you qualify for an LFO waiver at an upcoming sentencing hearing, or to ask for forgiveness (remission) of previously imposed LFOs.

Talk to a lawyer.

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