Motorists ticketed for cell phone use may be eligible for refund after Department of Licensing error

A blunder by the Washington State Department of Licensing has led to a lucky break for some cell phone using motorists.

A blunder by the Washington State Department of Licensing has led to a lucky break for some cell phone using motorists.

Hundreds of invalid tickets were issued in June to drivers caught using their cell phone without a hands-free device. Motorists are eligible to have the tickets dismissed and their fines refunded.

Invalid tickets

The mix-up stems from an oversight by the Washington State Department Of Licensing. The department maintains a Model Traffic Ordinance, a set of traffic rules as dictated by state code. The ordinance is supposed to be updated when the Legislature creates new traffic laws, DOL spokesman Tony Sermonti said. 

In July, DOL became aware that its Model Traffic Ordinance had not been updated since 2003. Consequently, traffic legislation passed since that time was absent from its rules. Noticeably absent was the cell phone law. This resulted in several invalid tickets given between June 10 — the day the state’s law against using a phone while driving went into effect — and July 1, when the cell phone law was added to the Model Traffic Ordinance.

“It was an oversight on the Department Of Licensing’s part, mainly due to people retiring and staffing changes,” Sermonti said.

The mistake affects several local jurisdictions. Law enforcement in Federal Way, Olympia, Bremerton, Puyallup, Lacey and others rely on the Model Traffic Ordinance as documentation that a traffic offense has occurred. Federal Way police were unaware they were issuing invalid tickets until after DOL notified the department, police spokeswoman Cathy Schrock said.

“Our code says we adopt (traffic laws) per the Washington State Department Of Licensing code,” Schrock said. “It was an assumption by the City of Federal Way that the DOL would update their standard traffic code.”

Tickets dismissed

Now, motorists can request their tickets be dismissed and their fines refunded. Approximately 290 tickets were issued in Federal Way between the June 10 and July 1 dates, said Sue White, Federal Way Municipal Court administrator. Recipients may file paperwork with the court to have their ticket dropped. The process is simple, White said. 

“We don’t really expect it to be a difficulty for anyone,” she said.

It’s up to drivers to initiate a dismissal and refund. Notice will not be sent to those who acquired an invalid ticket, White said. As of Wednesday, only three individuals had taken action to have their tickets dropped, she said.

Thousands refunded

In applicable cities, individuals requesting a refund must submit paperwork to the court that processed their ticket. The court will forward it to the DOL, which will refund the full amount paid by the violator, Sermonti said.

“It’s our aim here to not have this be a financial impact on local governments,” he said. “We understand they’re having a tough time like everybody else is.”

DOL expects numerous refund requests from multiple jurisdictions. The cities of Puyallup, Olympia and Lacey have already submitted paperwork, Sermonti said. As of Monday, DOL had received 160 refund requests. Roughly $19,000 has been refunded, he said.

“Some cities are actively reaching out to folks that have received these tickets; other cities are relying on folks to come contact them,” Sermonti said.

Individuals can expect their refunds in three to six weeks, he said. However, many of the courts are waiting to receive multiple requests before forwarding them to DOL, so recapturing the money could take longer. 

In Federal Way

People seeking to have their ticket dismissed and fine refunded ought to contact the Federal Way Municipal Court. The court is located at 33325 8th Ave. S. and can be reached at (253) 835-3000.

Check it out

The lag in updating the Model Traffic Ordinance also affects citations relating to other traffic laws passed since 2003. Prior to July 19, there were 18 other “rarely-cited” traffic offenses missing from DOL’s Model Traffic Ordinance. The offenses are listed on DOL’s blog, The Model Traffic Ordinance is now current. However, the DOL expects to refund up to $500,000 gathered from invalid tickets, Sermonti said.

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