State of Washington v. S. Johnson

This court case is completed

The ACLU has longstanding concerns with Washington’s law on Driving While License Suspended Third Degree (DWLS 3) because it imposes harsh criminal consequences on low-income people who lack the financial ability to pay traffic fines.  For years, we have supported legislation that would de-criminalize DWLS 3 and deal with the issue of payment of traffic fines through civil law mechanisms, like other debts, instead of the criminal justice system.  This has been a priority because large numbers of Washingtonians are prosecuted and jailed for DWLS 3; it is approximately one third of the caseload in misdemeanor courts here.  For many of these defendants, the prosecution and incarceration disrupts any chance they have at successful employment, and it makes supporting themselves and their family even more difficult than it already is.  A minor traffic fine can snowball into lifelong insurmountable debt and the risk of arrest and jail.  People with financial means avoid those consequences while people who can barely make ends meet do not.

This case involved a defendant who argued that the relevant statutes did not authorize a DWLS 3 conviction when his driver’s license was suspended based on failure to pay a traffic fine that was imposed after a hearing.  He asserts that the crime of DWLS 3 is limited to suspensions based on failure to respond to the ticket, or failure to appear at a requested hearing.  The issue before the Supreme Court was whether to interpret the statutes the way Johnson argued, or more broadly to cover failure to pay the fine imposed at the hearing.  

Explore More: