State Politics

Forget to renew your driver’s license? This lawmaker wants to spare you jail time

Driving on an expired license is now a misdemeanor in Idaho, bringing arrests and jail time. That means a traffic stop like this one can contribute to what Caldwell Rep. Greg Chaney called a “vicious cycle.”
Driving on an expired license is now a misdemeanor in Idaho, bringing arrests and jail time. That means a traffic stop like this one can contribute to what Caldwell Rep. Greg Chaney called a “vicious cycle.” Seattle Times/MCT

Forget to renew your driver’s license and get caught driving? Misdemeanor.

Get pulled over while driving on a suspended license? Misdemeanor and jail time.

Currently the charge of driving on an expired or suspended license is a misdemeanor under all circumstances. In many cases, Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, now wants to make it an infraction.

Under a proposal he made to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee on Tuesday, driving on an expired license would be an infraction on the first and second offense. So would driving on a license suspended because you didn’t pay fines, or because of smaller offenses like minor in possession of alcohol.

The bill does not let people off the hook for driving on a license suspended for other reasons, like DUI or reckless driving. That would remain a misdemeanor.

These cases also burden Idaho’s courts, jails and public defenders, Chaney said.

“The net effect of this (bill) would be to remove about 7,000 misdemeanor cases a year from our criminal justice system,” he told the committee. “That would save counties statewide over $9 million per year in the cost of incarceration, prosecution and public defense.”

Under the proposal, the fine for a driving-without-privileges infraction would be $150.

This bill also eliminates mandatory jail time for driving on a suspended license — currently five days for a first offense and 20 days for a second offense.

Chaney said he wants to curb a “vicious cycle” that occurs when someone loses their license for failing to pay court costs and fees.

“They can ignore the suspension and keep working, or miss work and fall further behind,” Chaney told the committee. “The options seem very limited in that circumstance for those individuals and it can become a cycle, especially if they are charged with driving on a suspended license.”

The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill. Next it will get a full hearing before the committee.

Other bills

The judiciary committee had a busy day on Tuesday. Some of the other proposals for which it agreed to hold hearings:

▪  Domestic violence offenders caught with a gun would face a misdemeanor.

Federal law bars people convicted of misdemeanors involving domestic abuse from possessing firearms. But critics say the law is weak, and as a federal law is hard to enforce. In recent years a number of states have passed more stringent laws of their own.

Idaho has not yet. Tuesday’s proposal “prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from having guns by making it a misdemeanor for anyone who has been convicted within the last two years of assault or battery against a household member to possess a firearm,” Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, told the committee.

“The proposal applies to people who are already prohibited by federal law from owning or possessing a firearm, and empowers Idaho law enforcement to protect women and their families from violent abusers,” she said.

A violation would be a misdemeanor, bringing up to six months in jail and/or less than a $1,000 fine.

▪  A bipartisan bill presented by Reps. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, allows judges some discretion when it comes to mandatory sentencings.

“The bill is similar to what federal law allows, which is, in essence, a carve-out to allow judges some discretion in the sentencing process,” Perry told the committee.

Under the proposal, a sentence less than the minimum imprisonment “may be imposed only if the court finds that the imposition of the minimum sentence would result in manifest injustice and the minimum sentence is not necessary for the protection of the public,” Perry said. “The intent of the bill is to filter out the young person who simply made a mistake or was completely unaware of the circumstances from the actual criminal that is being targeted.”

▪  Idaho judges would get an annual raise of $4,700.

Legislation is necessary to grant judges a pay increase because judicial salaries are set by statute, not during the state’s annual budget process, Sara Thomas with the Idaho Supreme Court told the committee. Thomas said the state is having a difficult time attracting judicial candidates because of the low pay, which is the 44th lowest in the nation. If approved, Supreme Court justices would make $151,400 annually, appellate judges $141,400, district judges $135,400 and magistrate judges $123,400.

▪  Jurors could get a raise, too.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, wants to increase juror pay to $50 daily whenever a trial is five days or longer.

Gannon asked the committee “to support the public and when they serve as jurors and at least make it a little easier for people providing this public service.”

▪  Standardize and modernize landlord/tenant and eviction laws.

“Neither of those have really been updated in a couple generations,” Paul Smith, Idaho Apartment Association executive director, told the committee.

“This bill will streamline the eviction process, reduce bottlenecks that affect and hurt both landlords and tenants. We want to increase transparency and clarify the process.”

Among the proposed changes: allow criminal evictions to proceed faster; require landlords to keep abandoned property for a set period of time; set a timeline for landlords to return security deposits, and create a penalty for those who do not comply. The bill also creates a process for tenants to serve notice to landlords regarding habitability issues, and streamlines and expedites the eviction process.

“There are multiple types of evictions and they all have different process, different timing. It is very confusing. Some are expedited, some take quite a long time. This (bill) expedites everything and brings us into conformity with other Mountain West states,” Smith said.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell