How do license suspensions work in Washington?

It is a crime in Washington to drive while one’s driver’s privilege or license is suspended by DOL. The severity of the crime, and of the punishment, is tied to the ‘degree’ of suspension or revocation (revocation basically means that the license has been taken for one year or more). There are three degrees of license suspension or revocation.

First Degree: To be revoked in the first degree means the driver has been declared a “Habitual Traffic Offender” by the DOL. These revocations are fairly rare and only happen after three major violations (DUI, Vehicular Assault, etc.) or twenty minor violations (speeding, negligent driving, etc.). The revocation is for seven years, with very limited options to request early reinstatement.

Second Degree: A second-degree suspension or revocation is usually a result of one individual offense and is for a shorter, specified period of time. Ninety days for a first offense DUI for example, or thirty days for Reckless Driving. At the end of the period, the driver can normally reinstate their license and be back to normal, in some cases with some additional requirements from DOL.

Third Degree: Driving While License Suspended (DWLS) in the Third Degree is the least serious of these crimes. This level of suspension is by far the most common in Washington, and most commonly seen in the criminal justice system. A third-degree suspension is generally for an indefinite period of time but can be cured by the driver at almost any time. in other words, the driver doesn’t have to wait for a certain date to get reinstated, just needs to get into compliance with DOL requirements.

The DOL suspends drivers in the third degree mostly for unmet financial obligations, but it can be the result of a number of other issues as well. For example, failing to pay child support can trigger a third-degree suspension, as can failing to show insurance after a collision, or failing to properly reinstate after a DUI suspension or revocation. But by far the most common cause that we see in court for third-degree suspensions is failing to appear or respond (or FTA) on a traffic violation. When a driver gets a ticket and doesn’t either pay it or appear in court to answer to it, the court notifies the DOL of an FTA, and the DOL, in turn, suspends the driver’s license.

How many suspended drivers are there?

The DOL says that over three hundred thousand drivers are currently suspended by Washington State. Of those, they estimate over one hundred ninety thousand drivers are suspended solely for FTA, either on criminal or infraction cases. Remember these people are suspended not for the substance of the driving violation that they committed – they are suspended just for not responding to court for the ticket.

What has changed?

In a case called Pierce v. DOL in April 2021, the Thurston County Superior Court issued a remarkable ruling. The Court decided that the law which suspends drivers for FTA is “unconstitutional as applied to individuals who are indigent and is therefore void and unenforceable.” With that language, the Court essentially ordered DOL to stop suspending licenses for failure to pay tickets, and further to remove current suspensions based on failing to pay or appear.

The DOL has accepted the court’s ruling and move to implementation. Effective June 8, 2021, the DOL will stop suspending licenses for failing to pay traffic infractions. Beginning June 16, the DOL will remove current suspensions from affected drivers, with explanation letters to follow. They will also waive the normal $75 fee to reinstate. For every driver in Washington who was suspended only for nonpayment of traffic infractions, the suspension is immediately lifted. This will mean probably anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 suspended drivers will immediately be reinstated (or at least eligible to reinstate).

Who does this affect?

Nothing in this ruling affects the at least 125,000 or so drivers who are suspended for other, or additional, reasons besides non-payment. But the effect of this ruling is going to change the lives of tens of thousands of people in Washington who weren’t able to drive legally to work or school and give them access to the opportunities enjoyed by licensed drivers.

So if you or someone you know has been suspended for unpaid fines, check your license status in the coming days. You may find that the suspension has been lifted and you are legal to drive again. And if you have questions about this or any other aspect of license suspensions or revocations, call us today!

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