Category Archives: Driving While License Suspended/Revoked

Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway

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In State v. Brooks, the WA Court of Appeals held that the neutral area separating a highway on-ramp from an adjacent lane of travel does not meet the definition of “roadway.” A driver who crosses this area is properly stopped for a violation of Driving with Wheels Off Roadway under RCW 46.61.670.

BACKGROUND FACTS

While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks’s car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a “neutral area.” A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. The drawing below is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks:

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A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks’s vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without probable cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks’s merger over the highway’s neutral area constituted “driving with wheels off roadway,” in violation of RCW 46.61.670. 2

Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial. Later, she successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington’s definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway’s neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals addressed (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A highway’s neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway on-ramp, safe vehicle merging.”

The Court further reasoned that National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) confirmed its observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway’s neutral area. In short, the Court reasoned the MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an “island.” As such, it is an area intended for vehicle “separation.”

“Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line, the two options carry no substantive significance” said the Court of Appeals. “Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is prohibited. The whole point of a neutral area is to exclude vehicles and promote orderly and efficient traffic flow,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that Ms. Brooks failed to maintain her vehicle wheels on an area of the highway meeting the statutory definition of a roadway. A vehicle stop was therefore permitted under Washington’s wheels off roadway statute. Consequently, the superior court’s order on appeal from the district court is reversed.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of caselaw on what constitutes “Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway.” Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges following after a police officer pullover where this citation led to arrest. It’s quite possible to suppress the fruits of a search based on unlawful stop, search and/or seizure.

DWLS-III Decriminalized?

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Excellent article by Seattle Times staff reporter discusses how a birpartisan group of lawmakers is continuing to push for change in a law that legislators, civil-rights groups and others say disproportionately burdens the poor and communities of color.

Senate Bill 6189, which is sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, would decriminalize the charge of third-degree driving with a suspended license (DWLS-III), a misdemeanor. Under current state law, those caught driving with a suspended license due to unpaid traffic tickets or because they didn’t show up for court hearings can be jailed.

The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee but not yet scheduled for a hearing. Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, who chairs the committee, said he agreed the issue is important, but with a short legislative session and many bills to review, he was hesitant to say if he will schedule a hearing on a proposal that in the past hasn’t been successful.

According to a 2017 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Driving While License Suspended Third Degree is the state’s most commonly charged crime. SB 6189 would remove its misdemeanor status and make the charge a traffic infraction with a $250 penalty. The penalty would be reduced to $50 if a defendant could show he or she got the license reinstated.

 Pacheco reports that since 1994, prosecutors in Washington state have filed some 1.4 million charges and obtained 860,000 convictions, according to the ACLU report. Native Americans were twice as likely as whites to be charged with the crime of third-degree driving while license suspended (DWLS-III), and blacks were three times as likely.

According to Pacheco, unpaid traffic infractions can pile up quickly, with some people accumulating thousands of dollars in fines that must be paid off to reinstate their license, said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, which operates a program in Spokane that helps people reinstate a suspended license.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has opposed previous efforts to decriminalize DWLS-III, but Executive Director Steve Strachan said the organization recognizes the financial burden the law has caused. The association wants to work with legislators to find a balanced solution to DWLS-III where accountability still exists and abuse of the system is discouraged, Strachan said.

Fain, the Auburn lawmaker, previously worked in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and said he witnessed a deluge of DWLS-III cases that made it difficult to focus on more important cases, such as drunken driving.

In 2009, in conjunction with King County District Court, the prosecutor’s office stopped charging stand-alone DWLS-III cases, but Fain said prosecutors still spent a lot of time handling such cases tied to other crimes.

“I want to spend more of my time on things that will actually improve public safety,” Fain said. “I think individuals, especially lower-income people, living paycheck to paycheck need to be able to go to work and pay their fines,” Fain said, “so you want to make sure you’re not inhibiting a person’s ability to comply with the law.”

Pacheco correctly states that DWLS-III charges are the least serious of the DWLS charges. First- and second-degree driving with a suspended license are charges aimed at habitual offenders and those who lost their licenses due to drunken-driving or reckless-driving convictions.

Co-sponsor Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said fines and the possibility of jail time under the current law effectively criminalize poverty and hurt communities of color.

“Putting people into this cycle where people get fined and they can’t pay and get further fined,” said Frockt, “there’s other alternatives.”

Pacheco says that if a measure is passed, Washington would join a handful of states that have decriminalized driving with a suspended license, including Oregon, Wisconsin and Maine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 1993, Senate Bill 1741 made driving with a suspended license due to unpaid traffic infractions a misdemeanor.

My opinion? I hope the legislature decriminalizes DWLS-III. These charges essentially hook people into the criminal justice system for failing to pay traffic fines.  The charges also expose people to a search incident to arrest with the very real possibility of police finding illegal contraband which may lead to heavier charges. Also, a DWLS-III conviction makes it difficult for people to get to work and further holds back those working their way toward paying off fines and avoiding more fines or jail time.  Please contact me if you, a friend or family member is charged with DWLS III.

DUI: Men vs. Women

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Great news article from the Bellingham Herald discusses the physiological differences in alcohol impairment levels experienced between men and women.

In Who Gets Arrested More for DUI: Men or Women?,  author Doug Dahl states that over the past couple decades, alcohol-impaired driving has steadily been decreasing, however, the reduction in impaired driving doesn’t apply to women. Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

Apparently, in a recent 10-year period, DUI arrests for men decreased by 7.5 percent while DUI arrests for women increased by 28.8 percent.

“According to the CDC, the average weight of an American man is 196 pounds, while the average American woman weighs 166 pounds,” said Dahl.  “Also, because of differences in enzymes, hormones and body fat percentages between men and women, women generally metabolize alcohol at a slower rate.” Simply put, says Dahl, women get drunk faster and stay drunk longer than men:

“To be clear, both of our imaginary people in this example shouldn’t drive. A BAC of .06 will cause impairment. It’s a big enough concern that legislators in some states, including Washington, have proposed reducing the legal limit to .05.”

Mr. Dahl further states that the level of impairment between a BAC of .06 and .09 is significant. According to a study of impaired driving crashes, a driver with a BAC of .06 is about 1.6 times more likely to cause a crash than a sober driver. For a driver with a BAC of .09, that jumps up to 3.5 times more likely. “Don’t judge your own impairment based on how someone else handles the same amount of alcohol, and always have a plan for a safe ride home before going out for drinks,” says Dahl.

Regardless of your gender, please contact my office if you, a friend or relative faces charges of DUI. These charges are serious, threaten careers and can significantly limit one’s driving privileges.

The Most Charged Crime

Driven To Fail Report Cover

Apparently, the most commonly charged crime in Washington State – Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree (DWLS III)- shouldn’t be a crime at all, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argues in a new report.

In “Driven to Fail: The High Cost of Washington’s Most Ineffective Crime – DWLS III” the report describes the costs of enforcing this law, explores how it burdens individuals and communities, and calls for policies that address the harm of driving with a suspended license without criminalizing it. According to the ACLU, taxpayers spend more than $40 million a year to prosecute cases of DWLS III.

“Not every social problem needs to be treated as a crime,” said Mark Cooke, the ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice Policy Director. “DWLS III enforcement costs taxpayers millions of dollars, yet does little to improve public safety. The crime is largely punishing people for being poor, not because they are scofflaws or dangerous drivers,” said Cooke.

Typically, a DWLS III charge comes about this way: A driver receives a ticket for a moving violation (such as speeding or rolling through a stop sign) and for various reasons does not follow through by paying the ticket or showing up in court to contest it. Hundreds of thousands of people in Washington have had their license suspended for not responding to a ticket for a moving violation. Those who continue to drive once their license is suspended may be arrested and charged with DWLS III.

The report estimates that Washington taxpayers have spent more than $1.3 billion enforcing this crime between 1994 and 2015. These costs stem from the filing of nearly 1.5 million DWLS III criminal charges, resulting in nearly 900,000 convictions. In 2015, there were nearly 40,000 DWLS III charges filed, costing taxpayers $42,199,270. The report also shows that the law is applied unequally across the state and disproportionately impacts people of color, the young, and the poor.

The report recommends that the crime of DWLS III should be taken off the books. Short of that, law enforcement, prosecutors and courts can exercise their inherent discretion and treat DWLS III as a civil offense and offer relicensing programs. Civil remedies and relicensing can be more effective and use fewer criminal justice resources. The data in the report also shows that some jurisdictions, such as the cities of Yakima and Seattle, have started to treat DWLS III as a non-criminal offense.

My opinion? It’s no mystery that DWLS III allows police to arrest people with suspended licenses. However, most don’t know that it allows police to search people’s vehicles after arrest.  Therefore, any contraband, guns or other illegal items found in people’s cars can be lawfully seized. Additionally, the defendant will face unlawful possession charges for whatever contraband found during the search. In my opinion, this is the essence of an unlawful pretextual search. And for that reason, DWLS III should be a civil infraction which circumvents the need for arrest and searches. It should not be a crime.