"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 (forgive/revisit) 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, and reinforced what mandatory inquiry the court must conduct at sentencing. Courts must now ask about the defendant's finances in some detail; including work history, other court debt, other general debt, assets, and monthly living expenses. Up to this point, a talisman for courts resistant to this development in the law had been "Well, you can 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, and 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 $43 or less. In felony cases, many times LFOs can be as low as $500-600.
Most importantly, if you are poor, or "indigent", you qualify for your prior criminal case debt to be forgiven, put on a payment plan, or converted to community service. This is called remission and is available under RCW 10.73.160(4) and oftentimes 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
The DOL also suspends licenses for many non-criminal civil infractions. Since a change in the law in 2013, only non-payment of moving violations, such as speeding tickets, or other infractions necessarily tied to a moving vehicle, can suspend a license. Here is the list. Worse, infractions committed between 2005 and 2013 do not even have to be moving violations to suspend. As far as I can tell, this is pursuant to the DOL's interpretation, which has been supported by the courts , that the 2013 amendments do not apply retroactively. On the plus side, going way back, pre-2005 infractions do not count against your ability to drive.
Inexplicably, infraction debt is harder to clear up than criminal case LFOs. Not only can unpaid infraction debt rack up service fees and interest at a collection agency ( by statute 50% of he debt or more out of the gate, so, for example, a $600 ticket becomes $900), but such agencies oftentimes bundle all your debts together when only a ticket or two are suspending. Use the DOL license express tool to see what infractions are holding your license, then if you are stuck with them, negotiate with the collection agency to pay off those tickets only. Most collections agencies allow you to target tickets like this. Some, however engage in the abusive practice of bundling your debt from suspending and non-suspending court debt, then demand a huge balloon payment before they will notify the court, and in turn the DOL to lift the suspension. What a terrible abuse of power I'm sure Legislature never intended to convey! Yet, these same agencies will sometimes back down and enter a targeted plan when speaking to an attorney or knowledgeable debtor.
Another option, is that some 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. Some may see the equity issue at play. As you can see from the above, there is a lot you can do to get on top of court debt that is holding your license.
Of course there are a number of other reasons your license might be suspended, such as backlogged child support, DUI conditions, and unpaid costs related to uninsured accidents. As well, there are special licenses, such as an ignition interlock license or occupational restricted license, which can allow you to drive under specific circumstances. An attorney can help you sort this out.
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 in a criminal case.