Traffic Q&A: If stopped, a driver best reach for a license inside the car

rob.carson@thenewstribune.comFebruary 24, 2014 

Question: As I understand the law, I must have my driver’s license with me at all times when I am driving a motor vehicle. However, it is unclear to me how close to me my license has to be.

Like many women, I carry my license in my handbag, which is usually in the cab section of the car but not necessarily within my personal reach. Sometimes it’s in the back seat or on the floor of the back seat.

Is that acceptable under the law?

Further, suppose that, for some reason, I need to place my bag in the trunk or cargo area of the vehicle where it is out of everybody’s reach.

Does that meet my legal requirement to have my license with me? — Marie Hollinshead, Tacoma

Answer: There’s no absolute answer to this question, because state law doesn’t address it directly.

However, according to Paul Landry, a Tacoma attorney who specializes in criminal defense and personal injury cases, an answer may be found in two ideas in our traffic laws.

“First, RCW 46.20.017 requires that a driver “shall have his or her driver’s license in his or her immediate possession at all times when operating a motor vehicle and shall display the same upon demand to any police officer,” Landry said.

“On the other hand,” he said, “several other traffic laws — ‘driver’s duties after an accident,’ for example, and ‘duties when pulled over’ — simply require a driver to ‘produce’ a valid license when requested by an officer.’”

So is a license kept in the trunk in your “immediate possession?”

“Given that it could be produced on demand for a police officer, one could argue that it is OK to have it in the trunk,” Landry said. “Note, however, that for officer-safety concerns, an officer does not want a driver rooting around in the trunk.”

“You’re certainly fine with it anywhere in the passenger compartment,” Landry concluded, “but the best practice in any case is to have it on your person or within your reach.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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