Supreme Court ruling leaves questions unanswered

POULSBO — A Supreme Court ruling on one of the Poulsbo Municipal Court’s most frequent cases has city officials wondering how to respond.

Especially since the ruling remains in limbo at this time.

In a 5-4 decision June 3, the state Supreme Court decided the charge of driving with a license suspended in the third degree was unconstitutional. The case was brought by the City of Redmond, which asked the court to review an earlier King County District Court dismissal of charges against two men for driving with suspended licenses.

A person’s license is suspended in the third degree for infractions like unpaid traffic tickets or child support. Second degree pertains to those driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and first degree refers to habitual offenders.

Under the system that was found unconstitutional, persons failing to pay fines for traffic infractions or missing court appearances would have their cases forwarded to the state Department of Licensing (DOL) and their licenses would be suspended.

“The theory is it really gets your attention and you’ll then take care of whatever the underlying problem is,” Poulsbo Municipal Court Judge Jeffrey Tolman explained.

But the majority opinion of the justices was that the practice is unconstitutional because the person was not given due process. In courtroom proceedings, an individual could argue that they had been improperly charged, misidentified or that their license had been suspended through a clerical error. Since those with licenses suspended in the third degree were given no court date before the action was taken, the majority opinion was that the person’s right to these arguments had been stripped from them.

But the minority opinion of the court was that the ruling went too far. The four justices voting against felt the court had been asked solely to determine the fate of the charges against the two men, not on the practice in general.

“My understanding is (the unconstitutional ruling) was because the person didn’t get their day in court,” Poulsbo Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Bill Playter commented. “Of course they didn’t. Because they didn’t show up.”

The City of Redmond has filed for a reconsideration of the June 3 decision and it should be known within the next month or so whether the court will rehear the case.

“If they don’t reconsider, that’s the way it is,” Tolman explained. “But if they do consider, particularly with a 5-4 decision, it could signal a switch.”

For now, the Supreme Court’s ruling of unconstitutional stands against driving while license suspended in the third degree and procedures have changed across the board.

Prior to the ruling, a person could be pulled over by a law enforcement officer simply for having a license suspended in the third degree.

“Sometimes, the officer knows a person has their license suspended because maybe they’d dealt with that person the day before or something,” Tolman explained.

Now, officers are instructed to only pull individuals over for licenses suspended in the first or second degrees or for traffic infractions, Playter said.

If a person who is suspended in the third degree is pulled over for a primary traffic infraction, their information will be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office, as with any other traffic ticket, but they will not be ticketed for the suspension.

“The case will be sent to the prosecutor’s and they’ll make a determination on any charges,” Playter explained.

In the courtroom, Tolman said pending cases regarding licenses suspended in the third degree are being dismissed without prejudice, which means that they can be re-filed at a later date. Aside from traffic tickets, the suspension is the most frequent case at Poulsbo’s municipal court and Tolman said between June 3-30 about 50-100 suspensions were dismissed.

Any warrants relating to driving with a license suspended in the third degree have also been quashed at this point, Tolman added.

If the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the June 3 ruling, there will be other questions that will need to be addressed at that point. Some include whether or not charges and fines related to third degree suspended license traffic stops will be retroactively dismissed.

“There’s a number of issues that will play out in the future,” Tolman commented.

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