Project puts traffic offenders on the road to recovery

The OlympianApril 30, 2014 

Jerry Baker stocks and stacks donated food items April 23rd at the Thurston County Food Bank to help satisfy traffic ticket fines he's accrued.The Northwest Justice Project is doing statewide pro-bono legal work trying to help poor people get drivers licenses back when their licenses get suspended because of unpaid fines.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian Buy Photo

For someone with a family wage job or better, a traffic ticket is not much more than an irritant: Pay it and get on with life.

For someone unemployed or living hand-to-mouth, that same ticket often becomes an insurmountable barrier, leading to more legal troubles, escalating fines and even jail time.

There are huge personal and societal costs when a single mother on a fixed income or a disabled person or an indigent person is charged with a traffic infraction, and fails to pay.

One common scenario goes like this: Someone fails to pay a traffic fine. The state Department of Licensing revokes his or her driver’s license. The traffic offender ups the ante by driving while his or her license is suspended. If caught, the driver faces more fines and a misdemeanor offense. The fines mount. The violators are turned over to a collection agency. Maybe they go to an already overcrowded jail, costing the public far more than the original fine. Maybe they have to file for bankruptcy.

These aren’t isolated cases. In 2011, prosecutors statewide filed nearly 300,000 cases involving a driver with a suspended license. Here in Thurston County District Court, up to one-third of all cases filed are driving while license suspended, county prosecutors say.

These are some reasons why there is much to like about an effort by the Northwest Justice Project to provide free legal support to indigents and the working poor who are trapped in the world of unpaid traffic fines that may have started with something as routine as failure to wear a seat belt, speeding, an improper lane change or failure to have documentation of car insurance.

The short-term goal of Northwest Justice Project attorneys such as Leslie Owen in Olympia is to file motions with the courts to reduce mounting traffic fines, and find creative ways for clients to recover their driver’s licenses.

In the long run, a project such as this would be invaluable statewide.

Traffic offenders should be held accountable for violating the law. The traffic laws are on the books for good reasons. They provide a framework of driving behavior designed to reduce the risk of accidents, injuries and traffic fatalities.

One alternative to hefty fines is to allow offenders to work off their debts through community service. It is an alternative embraced by Thurston County District Court judges. “Community service hours are a great way to give back,” noted Judge Sam Meyer. In some cases, judges also are willing to grant motions to remove fines from the clutch of collection agencies. This makes it easier for the traffic offenders to pay their fines.

The Northwest Justice Project is a publicly funded legal aid program that helps keep the scales of justice balanced for low income and indigent families and individuals. Each year the project’s 100 attorneys and paralegals help thousands of people navigate the legal system.

This latest initiative to ease the burden and unintended consequences of traffic violations is a worthwhile endeavor that deserves the full support of justice system, and the public.

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