In State v. Johnson, a 5-4 majority of the State Supreme Court upheld Lewis County resident Stephen Johnson’s third-degree driving while license suspended (DWLS) charge for failing to pay a $260 traffic ticket because he arguably had the financial means to do so.
After Johnson’s driver’s license expired in 2001 he did not renew it. In 2007, police stopped Johnson and cited him for driving without a valid license. Following his appearance at a hearing to contest the infraction, the district court imposed a $260 fine, which Johnson did not pay, and his license was suspended as a result. Lewis County deputies stopped Johnson again in 2008, this time arresting Johnson for third-degree DWLS. At trial on the DWLS charge, the Lewis County District Court found Johnson guilty and imposed a fine and suspended jail sentence.
In a hearing to determine whether he could afford counsel, Johnson testified that he had no income, had not worked in 30 years, and received food stamps and energy assistance from the State. He further testified, however, to owning a $300,000 home free of liens and obtaining a $3 million judgment in a tort suit (though Johnson stated that the defendant appeared judgment proof). The district court determined that Johnson was not “indigent” for purposes of obtaining court-appointed counsel.
Continue Reading Fifty Shades of Poverty: State Supreme Court Holds There is No Such Thing as “Driving While Poor” If You Own Your House