The Vancouver City Attorney’s Office has started making equity-based changes to how it prosecutes certain crimes, including those related to substance abuse and misdemeanor driving with a suspended license.
Earlier this month, the office introduced a yearlong pilot program that offers two alternatives to how it traditionally prosecuted third-degree driving with a suspended license cases.
On Wednesday, it announced the Clark County Substance Abuse Court, of which it’s a participant, would transition to a pre-plea model.
The changes seek to address barriers that people with criminal convictions face when seeking housing and employment, as well as the disproportionate impacts to Black, Indigenous and people of color and those who may not have financial means.
“The Vancouver City Attorney’s Office is committed to advancing our understanding of who is, and is not, benefitting from the institutions our society has created,” City Attorney Jonathan Young said in a news release. “Where possible, we seek opportunities to lawfully balance and repair inequities that exist in our systems.”
The Substance Abuse Court supervises those charged with misdemeanor offenses who have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Participation in the program has traditionally required people to first plead guilty to their underlying charge. Now, participants with qualifying cases and who successfully complete the yearlong treatment program will be able to have their charges dismissed without first having to plead guilty.
Christie Emrich, a partner with Vancouver Defenders, said the change is in line with what’s been happening in other speciality courts, such as Mental Health Court.
“I think it’s appropriate. It’s a positive change,” she said.
Driving while suspended
Emrich said she was also pleasantly surprised to learn of the city’s new driving while suspended pilot program.
“Our office has advocated for years … regarding the fact that we always felt this disproportionately penalized the poor and indigent in the community,” she said. “I’m happy to see the city is finally acknowledging that. I hope they do that in practice and not just in speech.”
According to the City Attorney’s Office, third-degree driving with a suspended license often results from a driver’s failure to pay fines from a traffic ticket. Such cases account for a quarter of all criminal cases filed by the city.
Vancouver Defenders, which holds contracts with the city and county to handle all indigent misdemeanor cases, said it is acutely aware of a disparity between how each jurisdiction handles the charge.
Megan Peyton, the firm’s primary attorney representing indigent clients charged with driving while suspended, said the county often dismisses the charge for first-time offenders who manage to get their license, while the city offers diversion at a cost of $600. The expense was the main reason she couldn’t recommend diversion, she said.
“Our clients do not lose their license because they choose to. They lose their license because they do not have the funds to pay for a ticket or fine, which then gets increased by having to do a payment plan that involves interest and which snowballs into thousands of dollars worth of debt,” Peyton said in an email. “Basically, driving while suspended in the third degree makes poverty a crime.”
The city’s new pilot program offers two scenarios. First, it will allow people charged with the crime and who meet certain criteria to participate in a pre-citation diversion program “designed to educate and empower unlicensed drivers to get their license back.” Upon successful completion, the city won’t file charges. Second, in some instances, those who choose not to participate in the program would face civil tickets instead of criminal charges.
To be eligible for the program, the driver must have been referred after Jan. 1, doesn’t have a commercial driver’s license and wasn’t operating a commercial vehicle during the incident, doesn’t have a suspended license in another state, has no more than four convictions in the past 10 years preceding the program, and has no active warrants or felony convictions related to traffic safety. The incident also cannot have involved a crash.
“It is the intent of the City Attorney’s Office that the changes described above will help balance one source of potential inequity that exists within our legal system while maintaining citywide efforts to improve traffic safety,” the office said in a fact sheet.
At the end of the pilot program, the office said it will review the results and decide if further changes are needed or if they will be made permanent.
“(Vancouver Defenders) hopes this new program provides much-needed direction for those who want and need to get their license, but most importantly, we want to make sure that any program takes into consideration the obstacles those in poverty face when charged with driving while suspended in the third degree,” Peyton said.