Driver’s License Death Spiral

Posted by - November 29th, 2008
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I think it was Steve Miller who famously stated, “My Mazerati does 185, I lost my license, now I don’t drive…” While Steve Miller was correct that speeding is one way to lose your license, there are other ways as well. Consider a DUI conviction for instance. Actually wait, consider a DUI charge first. This DUI charge may arise anywhere in Washington State or in any city from Seattle to Redmond to Bellingham. What many drivers in the State of Washington do not realize is that the simple charge of drunk driving (DUI) will suspend your license. Yes, you read this correctly, even before you are even convicted, the Department Of Licensing (DOL) will deny, suspend, or revoke your license or privilege simply because you were arrested. This, however, requires a few caveats. First, the DOL suspends your license if you took a breath test with a reading of .08 or higher. It does so based solely upon the police officer’s “sworn report” (a form with boxes checked by the officer) that you were arrested, your rights were read, and your breath test was .08 or more.  Suspended if you take the test? Ok, what if you refuse? It only gets worse! Either a flat out refusal by the driver, or the subjective belief by the officer that the person is refusing (blowing into the machine improperly) will cause a licensing revocation. A “revocation” is different from a “suspension.” A suspension is for a period not less than 30 days, but not longer then 90 days, while a revocation is at least one year. Therefore, a person with a first time DUI arrest, who provided a breath sample over .08 is subject to a 90 license suspension from the DOL, while the driver who is a first time DUI arrest and refuses, is subject to a one year revocation, all without being charged or convicted of DUI. (Things are worse for drivers holding CDL status, and we’ll discuss that in another article.)

Can you drive during the suspension? A “restricted license” is available after applicable waiting periods, but some people choose to drive even though the license is suspended, figuring that the consequences if they get caught can’t be that bad. They are seriously mistaken. First, committing the crime of Driving While License Suspended, Second Degree is a Gross Misdemeanor with a possible sentence of up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. In addition to this if a person is convicted of this crime at a time when they still do not hold a valid driver’s license, the DOL will add another year revocation on top of the previous suspension or revocation in effect at the time of sentencing!

If you think that it can’t get any worse keep reading. If a motorist continues drive and continues to get DWLS 2 charges, it only take a very few instances before a driver is in a position to lose their driver’s license for a minimum term of 7 years, and then face mandatory jail terms beginning at 10 days. This happens because Washington has something called a Habitual Traffic Offender (HTO) statute. There are two ways to be so labeled. The first is to be been convicted of 3 major moving violations (i.e. DUI, Reckless Driving, or DWLS 1 and 2, to name a few) within a 5 year period. The second way to be deemed HTO is to accumulate 20 moving traffic infractions within a 5 year period.

Once a person achieves this HTO status the revocation is for 7 years. Consequently, because the revocation penalties are set up consecutively (as one expires the other takes effect) the cycle can continue until so much suspension time is lined up that an individual will likely die of old age before he becomes eligible to regain his license. This accumulation of suspensions for repeated violations of the suspended license laws is called the DOL Death Spiral. This cycle can only be broken by accomplishing the impossible: finding alternative transportation in this day and age of urban sprawl and poor transit planning and service, or by waiting for the long – distant time when one will be eligible for licensing again.

The best defense from such a tragic downward spiral is driving legally and exercising an abundance of caution regarding the consumption of alcohol and the rules of the road. Moreover, a person charged with a DUI is always well advised to retain an experienced attorney so that all of the complex ramifications of the charge can be understood and the best defense asserted.