Driver's License Offenses

What are Driver's License Offenses?

In virtually every license offense case, the driver's problem begins with a traffic stop. The police officer notices that you are speeding, have failed to signal a turn, or have committed some other infraction. It's also possible that the officer sees you stopped at a traffic light and decides to run your license plate through the computer. If the search indicates that you're driving with your license suspended or revoked, then you will be pulled over and, in all likelihood, charged with additional offenses that further imperil your driving privileges.

The penalties for driver's license offenses may include either a suspension or a revocation of your license. A suspension occurs when your privilege to drive is taken away for less than a year. A revocation occurs when you lose your license for more than a year. Some of the less serious offenses do not involve loss of license.

Driving Without a License on Your Person:

According to RCW §46.20.015, a person is guilty of driving without a license on your person if he:

  1. Drives any motor vehicle upon a highway in Washington State without a valid driver's license in his possession;
  2. Provides the citing officer with an expired driver's license or other valid identifying documentation at the time of the stop; AND
  3. Is not driving while suspended or revoked.

Penalties for Driving Without a License on Your Person in Washington:

Driving without a license on your person is considered a traffic infraction and is punishable by a penalty of $250. If the person appears in person before the court or submits by mail written proof that he obtained a valid license after being cited, the court will reduce the penalty to $50.

Driving Without a Valid Operator's License:

According to RCW §46.20.005, a person is guilty of driving without a valid license if he drives any motor vehicle on a highway in Washington State without a valid driver's license issued to Washington residents.

Driving without a valid license is considered a misdemeanor, which RCW §9A.20.021 defines as punishable by up to ninety days in jail, a maximum fine of $1,000, or both.

Unlike the infraction discussed above, this is a criminal offense that will be on your record. The court finding a conviction can have jurisdiction over you for a period of two years during which you must maintain law-abiding behavior, otherwise you may be required to appear in court.

Driving While License Suspended or Revoked in the First Degree:

According to RCW §46.20.342(1)(a), a person is guilty of driving while license suspended in the first degree if:

  1. He drives a motor vehicle in Washington State while he is in a suspended or revoked status or when his privilege to drive is suspended or revoked in this or any other state, AND
  2. He is a habitual offender (see below).

A habitual traffic offender (HTO) is a driver who, within a five-year period, has been convicted of:

  1. Three or more of the following offenses: vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, DUI, physical control, hit and run attended, reckless driving, DWLS in the first or second degrees, eluding an officer, OR
  2. Twenty or more moving traffic infractions.

Penalties for Driving While License Suspended or Revoked in the First Degree in Washington:

Driving while license suspended in the first degree is considered a gross misdemeanor, which RCW §9A.20.021 defines as punishable by up to one year in jail, a maximum fine of $5,000, or both. The following additional standards apply:

  1. Upon the first such conviction, the person shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of ten days.
  2. Upon the second conviction, the person shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of ninety days.
  3. Upon the third or subsequent conviction, the person shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of one hundred eighty days.
  4. If the person is also convicted of driving under the influence, when both convictions arise from the same event, the person shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of ninety days.
Driving While License Suspended or Revoked in the Second Degree:

According to RCW §46.20.342(1)(b), a person is guilty of driving while license suspended in the second degree if he drives a motor vehicle in Washington State while he is in a suspended or revoked status or when his privilege to drive is suspended or revoked in this or any other state, and while he is not eligible to reinstate his driver's license or driving privilege.

Penalties for Driving While License Suspended or Revoked in the Second Degree in Washington:

Driving while license suspended in the second degree is considered a gross misdemeanor, which RCW §9A.20.021 defines as punishable by up to one year in jail, a maximum fine of $5,000, or both.

In addition to jail time and monetary fines, there is a mandatory extension of your suspension for an additional year.

Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree:

According to RCW §46.20.342(1)(c), a person is guilty of driving while license suspended in the third degree if he drives a motor vehicle in Washington State while he is in a suspended or revoked status or when his privilege to drive is suspended or revoked in this or any other state, ONLY IF such was suspended or revoked as a result of the following scenarios, among others:

  1. He failed to respond to a notice of traffic infraction, failed to appear at a requested hearing, violated a written promise to appear in court, or has failed to comply with the terms of a notice of traffic infraction or citation, AND/OR
  2. He failed to reinstate his license or privilege after the statutory term of the suspension or revocation has expired.

Penalties for Driving While License Suspended or Revoked in the Third Degree in Washington:

Driving while license suspended in the third degree is considered a misdemeanor, which RCW §9A.20.021 defines as punishable by up to ninety days in jail, a maximum fine of $1,000, or both.

Defending a Driver's License Offense:

There are a number of ways to defend a driver's license offense. In suspension or revocation cases, we typically employ a three-tiered defense strategy:

First, we consider the reason the police officer stopped you in the first place to determine whether we can challenge the legal basis for the stop of the vehicle. If the stop was based on a driving infraction, it may be possible to argue that the officer didn't have a legal basis for the charge. For example, if you were arrested for speeding, we may be able to establish that the police radar wasn't accurate.

Second, we consider any "due process" violations. Whenever the state deprives a person of a privilege, it has the obligation to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard. In the case of driver's license offenses, when the Department of Licensing moves to suspend your license in the first, second or third degree, they are required by law to provide notice, which usually involves sending a letter to your residence or your last known address of record. The letter needs to notify you that the suspension will take place on a specified date in the future and provide you with information about how you can request a hearing to contest the suspension. In the case of first- and second-degree suspensions, there are additional steps. For instance the state has to prove that the notification letter went to the proper address of record. If the state fails to comply with the due process guidelines, we can subpoena the relevant documents from the Department of Licensing. If the documents support our case, we can successfully defend the charge and have it dismissed.

Third, we may set the case for trial to see if the city or the prosecutor is able to establish the charges in front of a jury. The challenge for the prosecution is that it may not be able to arrange for its witnesses to be present to testify. In court, the arresting officer needs to describe the circumstances surrounding the arrest. If the testimony doesn't convincingly match the arrest record, we have a strong foundation for challenging the legal basis for the traffic stop. In addition, it's not enough for the officer to say that through a check of the records, it was clear that the driver's license was suspended. The prosecution has to prove that claim with the testimony of a custodian of records from the Department of Licensing. In fact, it's possible that the custodian might not show up or fails to testify properly. The officer may forget critical information or the prosecutor may not ask the right questions.

Your defense strategy is crucial, and the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney throughout this process is strongly advised.