Olympia attorney lends a hand to help low-income reclaim driver's licenses

Staff writerApril 24, 2014 

Collections agencies were bothering Olympia resident Jerry Baker, 68, at all hours at the start of the year because of about $2,000 he owed the state in unpaid fines for traffic violations.

Baker, who is disabled, owed the money because of penalties for unpaid fines in Thurston County for driving without insurance in 2008, driving without a valid registration for his car in 2009, and for speeding in 2010.

Today, the collection agencies are off Baker’s back, and Baker is paying off one of his $720 traffic fines by doing community service three days a week for $10 an hour at the Thurston County Food Bank.

“I love it,” Baker said of the work he does at the food bank. “The people there are really nice.”

Baker said that after his fines are taken care of, he dreams of being able to drive again.

“I’d like to be able to drive to the beach on a hot day,” or visit relatives, he said. “I can’t do these things.”

Baker’s good fortune is the result of the free legal work being undertaken by Leslie Owen, staff attorney for the Northwest Justice Project. Owen said staff attorneys with the Northwest Justice Project are doing pro bono legal work across Washington for people who are indigent and working poor who are being penalized for not being able to pay their traffic fines.

Ultimately, Owen said, her goal is to file motions with the courts to reduce traffic fines and help her clients get their driver’s licenses back.

Washington police issue fines every day for routine traffic violations such as failure to wear a seat belt, speeding, driving without documentation of insurance or even something as simple as an illegal lane change.

Owen pointed out that for most people, the misfortune of having to pay a traffic fine is a hassle, but doable. But for a single mother or someone on a fixed income, the misfortune of getting a traffic ticket can be catastrophic, she said.

That’s because when people are unable to pay traffic fines, they grow exponentially. Left unpaid, a $125 ticket can double and be sent to a collection agency charging interest and fees, Owen said. Collection agencies also have the right to garnish wages, she added.

Baker said: “It just gets bigger, bigger and bigger if you ignore it.”

In worst-case scenarios, Owen said she has seen people left with up to $20,000 in fines after unpaid tickets are sent to collection agencies. For those unlucky few, filing for bankruptcy is usually the best option, she said.

The state Department of Licensing will also revoke a person’s driver’s license if a traffic ticket is left unpaid. But most people need to drive in order to do things like work and buy groceries. So those who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets are essentially forced to drive in violation of the law after their driver’s licenses are revoked, Owen said.

“Not having a license is a barrier to work, and it is a public safety problem,” Owen said.

The crime of “driving while license suspended,” or DWLS, is a misdemeanor offense which takes up between a quarter and one-third of all cases in Thurston County District Court, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Jackson said.

Owen said that in 2011, the Washington Department of Licensing suspended approximately 300,000 licenses.

“We would like a statewide solution to this,” she said.

Owen said she and other staff attorneys are trying to spread the word about work the Northwest Justice Project is doing to help indigent defendants. On Wednesday night, Owen said she spoke to a group organized by Interfaith Works.

In Thurston County, the District Court has been very receptive to allowing people to pay off unpaid traffic tickets with community service hours, Owen said. Thurston County District Court is also helpful with allowing people to consolidate traffic fines and remove them from collections agencies, she said.

Thurston County District Court Judge Sam Meyer said all the judges on the bench in his court try to be flexible, recognizing the need to hold people accountable, but at the time, “we don’t want to cripple people economically.” Community service is always available to people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines, he said.

“Community service hours are a great way to give back,” Meyer said.

Meyer also said that, in certain circumstances, a judge will grant motions that allow fines to be removed from collections agencies.

The results of Owen’s work can be “life changing,” according to Samantha Boyer, a single mother in Olympia of 2-year-old twins. Boyer now has a driver’s license as a result of Owen’s work on her behalf.

A year ago, Boyer said she owed $3,500 in unpaid traffic fines, and part of her weekly paycheck was being garnished by a collections agency.

Boyer said she is now working to pay off one of her traffic tickets by doing community service work at the nursing home where she is employed. Owen worked out a payment plan so another ticket that was formerly in collections is now being paid off at a rate of $100 a month, Boyer said.

Having a driver’s license has helped Boyer stay employed, and drive her children back and forth from day care, she said.

“I have my driver’s license back, I have insurance,” she said. “It’s been a life-changing experience getting my license back.”

Boyer and Baker both said the work Owen did with the courts to get their traffic fines back on track was merely a matter of filing motions with the court. Neither had to actually appear before a judge to get the process started.

“I don’t think I could have managed it on my own,” Boyer said.

For information about the Northwest Justice Project, call 888-201-1014.

jpawloski@theolympian.com

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445; jpawloski@theolympian.com

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