Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Is “driving while poor” a crime?
It’s not a traffic infraction listed in the Revised Code of Washington, but a man who is disabled and homeless contends the fine issued for driving with a suspended driver’s license hits the poor so hard it essentially becomes a de facto excessive punishment that unfairly targets those with little income.
And the homeless man, Stephen C. Johnson, is so convinced he and others are being treated unfairly that he has appealed his conviction for driving while his license was suspended to the state Supreme Court.
Johnson asserts, through his attorney Kevin Hochhalter, that fines are by their nature unfair. It is not the dollar amount that matters, it is the economic impact to the person paying the fine, Hochhalter said.
Fair? Life isn’t fair.
But justice must be equal. That means the same sentences and fines for the same crimes and misdemeanors — regardless of wealth or social status. No, that doesn’t always occur, but that should be the goal.
Following Hochhalter’s logic, the only “fair” way to impart justice is to impose a sliding scale for fines — similar to income tax rates rising with income. And, to extend this thought process further, jail sentences would have to be on a sliding scale to ensure the “impact” on people is the same.
So, does that mean someone with a miserable life should spend less time in prison than someone who has a happy successful life — big house, great cars and wonderful family? After all, the hardship of being imprisoned is clearly a greater punishment for the person who has everything compared to someone who doesn’t have much to lose. This, of course, is nonsense.
The court that convicted Johnson was correct and the high court should reject his appeal.
Yet, given the high court has agreed to take the case, Johnson’s conviction could be overturned. If so, Johnson and 300,000 motorists in Washington with suspended licenses could be getting their licenses back.
The problems will only grow from there.
Punishment is not always fair, but it must be equal.