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Jaywalking debate pits safety concerns against unnecessary stops of homeless people

Greg Kim, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

Homeless people receive a disproportionately large percentage of jaywalking fines in the state — at least 41%, according to a report published earlier this year — despite being only about 0.4% of the population, according to the federally required Point-in-Time count.

The report, commissioned by Transportation Choices Coalition, suggests police use jaywalking laws as a way to stop and check people for warrants, a tactic they say perpetuates biased policing. That's disputed by police officials.

In this legislative session, state lawmakers considered a bill to decriminalize jaywalking, putting Washington alongside several other states and cities that have done so.

The bill failed to progress this year after butting up against concerns about traffic safety, with the state experiencing record-high pedestrian fatalities.

But advocates of decriminalizing jaywalking are skeptical that jaywalking laws keep people safer.

How jaywalking laws are used

 

Jaywalking laws were first added in Washington state in the early 20th century in response to a rise in pedestrians being killed by vehicles. But it does not appear they are primarily used for traffic safety today.

Before the pandemic, police in Washington issued 800 to 900 jaywalking citations per year. More often, they stopped people for jaywalking but just provided a warning. Regardless of a ticket or not, in 77% of stops, police checked whether people had existing warrants for other crimes.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court ruled that police could not do this. Then, after lobbying by police, the state Legislature quickly passed a law that allows officers to check for warrants during traffic stops like jaywalking.

"[A warrant check] is a very important tool for officer safety," said Larry Erickson, head of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, speaking in 1997 in support of that legislation. "Without it, we could be turning loose people who have already preyed on the public and here we have them in custody."

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