Updated Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 11:01 PM
CENTRALIA — Many of the 300,000 Washington citizens who have a suspended driver's license could get back their driving privileges this year if the Lewis County man who has been fighting against the state's most-charged crime wins his appeal this spring in front of the Washington State Supreme Court.
On March 19, the court will hear Stephen C. Johnson's criminal case regarding his 2008 conviction of third-degree driving while license suspended — a conviction Johnson describes as the government's invented crime of "driving while poor."
If he wins his appeal, it will likely have statewide consequences for the hundreds of thousands of people who have suspended licenses due to unpaid traffic tickets.
The case started when the 64-year-old Randle, Lewis County, man was pulled over in 2007 and received an infraction for driving without a valid license. Johnson went to court and contested the ticket, and the $538 fee was reduced to $260.
Even at the reduced rate, Johnson, who is disabled and homeless, and who has not had steady employment since 1976, said he could not afford to pay it — so he didn't.
As a result, the Department of Licensing suspended his license, even though he did not technically have one, making it a crime for him to drive.
Without a car, Johnson said he would have to walk from the house where he stays in Randle five miles to the nearest bus stop to catch one of three buses that pass by there a day.
The only way he could be mobile, he claimed, was to drive.
One year after his license was suspended, he was pulled over by a Lewis County sheriff's deputy and was arrested for DWLS III (driving while license suspended). He was booked into the Lewis County, Jail where he stayed for four days.
Most of the 300,000 Washington residents with suspended licenses that prohibit them from driving have unpaid traffic tickets. If they choose to drive and get pulled over by a police officer, they are arrested for DWLS III — a misdemeanor.
On a state level, 33 percent of all misdemeanor criminal cases are related to a suspended or revoked driver's license. For Lewis County, one of the counties with the highest unemployment rates in the state, that percentage is nearly doubled.
"Most are not bad people; they just don't have any money," Johnson said.
After his 2008 arrest, he demanded a trial in district court and was ultimately convicted. He appealed his conviction to Lewis County Superior Court and lost again.
He then again appealed his conviction to the court of appeals. A court commissioner declined to accept his petition for review, and when Johnson petitioned yet again, a panel of judges found that his underlying conviction was proper and declined to review it a second time.
Now his case will be brought before the state Supreme Court, which receives thousands of petitions a year to review the judgment of criminal and civil cases, and accepts only about one-tenth of them.
DWLS III is the most-charged crime in the state, and the large majority of those are poor people, said Kevin Hochhalter, Johnson's Olympia-based attorney.
He argues that Johnson's suspension, along with thousands of others, is unconstitutional because the state imposed a criminal sanction on an individual for failing to pay a fine without making an inquiry into the financial situation of the individual.
"When the choice is between a traffic ticket and food for your family, you choose the food," said Hochhalter, who has been representing Johnson in this case since 2010.
Fines by nature are unfair, Hochhalter said. At the end of it, it is not the dollar cost that matters — it's the economic impact to the person.
To put it simply: A millionaire is not affected the same way by a speeding ticket as is the average person.
"People get caught in this endless cycle," he said. "They can't pay their ticket, their license gets suspended. In order to pay their ticket, they need to work."
They drive to work, even though they shouldn't, and at some point they get caught by police and arrested for it, he said. In turn, the arrest results in an even bigger fine — about $1,500. If not paid, fines can double when they go to collections.
Lewis County judges and prosecutors argue it's not an issue of not being able to pay — it's a matter of personal responsibility.
Shane O'Rourke, the Lewis County deputy prosecutor who has handled the state's case against Johnson since 2008, said if a driver can afford a $3.50 gallon of gas, car insurance and other car-related expenses, a person can most likely afford to pay a traffic infraction.
The court also offers to work with individuals to set up a payment plan on a traffic infraction if they cannot pay the amount all at once, he said.
If a person chooses not to pay a traffic infraction, or stops payment on it, the fine eventually gets sent to collections and the Department of Licensing begins the process of suspending the driver's license, O'Rourke said. That process, he noted, takes several months.
Historically, O'Rourke said, courts have upheld the notion that driving is a privilege, not a right. The state has an interest in maintaining the safety of the roads by enforcing speed limits and other traffic laws.
In addition, many of the people with suspended licenses for unpaid fines have multiple speeding tickets and other infractions, not just one, he said.
Ultimately, if someone does not care if his traffic ticket goes to collections, the threat of eventual license suspension forces him to obey traffic laws, pay infractions and be a responsible driver.
"If you don't pay traffic infractions, what's the disincentive to not go out and get another infraction?" O'Rourke said.
If Johnson wins his case in March, it would decriminalize DWLS III for people who showed up in court to contest the ticket but then did not pay it, Hochhalter said.
It would not affect those who just threw the ticket in their glove compartment and ignored it.
For individuals who can't afford to pay their traffic fines, however, like Johnson, the appeal would be enormous, he said. The large majority of DWLS III cases lead to a successful conviction, which means that all those people have a misdemeanor on their record, which in turn affects employability and credit ratings.
If they win Johnson's appeal, Hochhalter said, they hope it will add a procedural barrier for the Department of Licensing that would force the state to determine whether the people not paying their tickets are doing it by choice or not paying because they are too poor.