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Originally published July 26, 2011 at 8:46 PM | Page modified July 26, 2011 at 10:46 PM

Unpaid tickets lead to drivers losing licenses

The driver's licenses of nearly 300,000 Washington drivers have been suspended for nonpayment of multiple traffic tickets, and if the drivers want to get them back, they have to run a gantlet that includes collection agents and a patchwork system of courts.

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OLYMPIA — The driver's licenses of nearly 300,000 Washington drivers have been suspended for nonpayment of multiple traffic tickets, and if the drivers want to get them back, they have to run a gantlet that includes collection agents and a patchwork system of courts.

Brandon Stowers said he lost his license after a series of mistakes that began several years ago when he stuffed a ticket in his glove box and forgot about it.

The unemployed father of three has now turned to King County relicensing court to begin to dig out of the mess he admits he got himself into.

Like drug court, it's a diversion program for people who have been stopped by an officer while driving on a license suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets.

"I need my license back bad," Stowers said.

Maggie Nave, head of the District Court unit of the King County Prosecutor's Office, said relicensing court frees up prosecutors for more serious cases. But it also gives suspended drivers a way to get their licenses back sooner.

"We understand that some people get themselves so far into debt that getting out of debt is extremely difficult," she said.

After a driver makes a few payments, the court lifts the hold on his license, which means he can get it back while he continues to pay off his tickets.

Court administrators in King and Pierce counties say that in any year, up to 25 percent of traffic tickets end up in collections. Relicensing court is a cheaper alternative, but it's available in only a few counties.

Judge Mark Eide 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 said.

Suspended-license cases consume a lot of court resources. One-third of misdemeanor court filings in Washington are for driving with a suspended license for failure to pay citations, 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 said there's evidence that minorities are more likely to see their licenses suspended for not paying their traffic fines.

"It's not a good thing to ignore the ticket, but it shouldn't be a crime," he said. "Why should we put somebody in jail for ignoring a ticket? What we ought to do is educate people that they have options."

Options include working off the ticket through community service, or getting on a payment plan.

Don Pierce, who heads the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, supports diversion programs, but not decriminalization. He said some scofflaws 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," he said.

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