Prosecutor’s office in Vancouver to offer diversion to most people charged with driving while suspended

The pilot program is intended to address a charge that disproportionately impacts people of color

VANCOUVER — Starting next year, the prosecutor’s office for the city of Vancouver will be changing the way it handles cases of people cited for the charge of Driving While Suspended in the third degree.

At a City Council meeting on Monday, City Attorney Jonathan Young explained that the change comes as part of an ongoing process to examine how the criminal justice system impacts people of color.

“It’s a crime that probably not many people spend much time thinking about,” he said, “unless it’s personally impacted you, or unless you work closely with it.”

People pulled over for driving with a suspended license in Vancouver may soon get a chance to clear their name before charges are filed. File photo
People pulled over for driving with a suspended license in Vancouver may soon get a chance to clear their name before charges are filed. File photo

A DWS-III charge happens when someone is cited for a minor moving traffic violation, such as speeding or running a stop sign, then fails to pay the ticket or show up in court to contest the charge.

Last year, the Vancouver City Attorney’s office charged 1,140 DWS-III cases, or about 25 percent of its total criminal caseload.

Young noted that 53 percent of those were still pending resolution as of last July, and 58 percent had at least one warrant issued.

Of the 333 cases that reached resolution, 158 had their fines dismissed. The other 175 defendants were ordered to pay a total of $25,717, said Young, but only $3,041 had been collected as of last July.

The racial data also suggests that minority populations are much more likely to face a DWS-III charge, on a per capita basis, than white residents.

“There is a logical nexus to the fact that people with more money are more capable of paying their moving violation fees and escaping this criminal charge,” said Young. “And so the conclusion that we’ve reached, and other jurisdictions around the state are beginning to reach, is that this charge has the potential to have a disparate impact on members of historically marginalized communities.”

While members of the black community make up 4.1 percent of Vancouver’s overall population, Young noted, they made up 12.6 percent of DWS-III cases. Native Americans are 1.9 percent of the city’s population, and 3.5 percent of DWS-III cases. Data for Latino populations was not available.

“This is one of those areas where our staff have identified a real, tangible good that we can do to balance some of the systemic inequity that exists within our justice system,” Young told the council.

That will be accomplished through a pilot program starting Jan. 1, 2021, in which people facing a DWS-III charge will be given two weeks to choose one of two potential paths to avoid a criminal charge.

“They can either work with our staff to get their license reinstated over the period of six months,” said Young, “or they can simply make life changes that don’t involve them driving and they can stay further referral free for six months.”

While the city already offers a diversion program, Young noted, the current process only offers access to it after a charge has been filed.

“The changes that we’re contemplating will change the point in that process where the diversion option becomes available,” Young said.

The pre-citation eligibility would be for people referred for charges after Jan. 1, 2021, and only for cases in which:

  • The incident did not involve a collision or accident
  • The driver does not have a commercial driver’s license and was not operating a commercial vehicle during the incident in question
  • The individual’s driver’s license is not also suspended in another state
  • The driver has had no more than four convictions in the past 10 years preceding entry into the diversion program
  • And the driver has no active warrants or felony convictions involving traffic safety, such as vehicular homicide.

Young acknowledged that there is a strong correlation between people driving with a valid driver’s license and traffic safety.

“Our intention is not to go soft on crime, by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But when we compare the facts that give rise to a Driving While Suspended Third case, compared to things like DUI or reckless driving, or hit and run, or even driving without proof of insurance, those sorts of offenses tend to have a stronger nexus to community safety.”

Young added that now is a good time to pilot the changes, given that the Department of Licensing is backed up on renewing driver’s licenses during the pandemic, and the county jail is working to reduce its population due to concerns over COVID-19.

“Also, as we look around the state and beyond our borders into Oregon, we believe that the proposed change, treating these as infractions, will be consistent with the way that other jurisdictions are starting to handle these,” added Young.

Seattle, for instance, charged just 289 DWS-III cases last year, said Young, compared with Vancouver’s 1,140. Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik also confirmed that the Washington Association of Prosecutors is contemplating a similar change statewide.

“I hope that it is a small thing that we can do to begin the path forward to correct some of the racial inequities that exist in our community,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen.

“We have a lot more policy buried within our books that we’re going to have to be doing this with,” added Ty Stober. “So staff’s proactive approach is much appreciated.”

Young said the goal is to reexamine the changes after a full year, though he said they will remain in contact with the Vancouver Police Department to ensure the modifications aren’t having an unintended impact on crime rates.

“If we see traffic safety trends that are indicating we’ve moved the needle too far to a different direction,” said Young, “and that safety is being impacted adversely, we will course correct along the way.”

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