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AGO 1981 No. 4 - March 30, 1981
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

COURTS ‑- DISTRICT ‑- MUNICIPAL ‑- MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS ‑- JURISDICTION OF MUNICIPAL OR POLICE COURTS OVER TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS

RCW 43.63.040 [46.63.040] does not vest a municipal or police court with jurisdiction over a traffic infraction based on an alleged violation of state law‑-as distinguished from one involving a local, municipal ordinance; therefore, such a court does not have exclusive, or even concurrent, jurisdiction over a traffic infraction case which is so based, even in the absence of a contract with the county to have those traffic infractions committed within the city or town adjudicated by a district court. 

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

                                                                  March 30, 1981 

Colonel R. W. Landon
Chief
Washington State Patrol
General Administration Bldg.
Olympia, Washington 98504

Cite as:  AGO 1981 No. 4                                                                                                                  

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you requested our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

             Where an incorporated city or town maintains and operates its own municipal or police court, does that court have exclusive jurisdiction over all traffic infractions (as defined in RCW 46.63.020) which are committed within the territorial limits of the municipality in the absence of a contract with the county for adjudication of traffic infractions by a district court?

             We answer the foregoing question in the negative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

                                                                    ANALYSIS

             By its enactment of chapter 136, Laws of 1979, 1st Ex. Sess., as amended by chapter 128, Laws of 1980 (now codified as chapter 46.63 RCW) the legislature decriminalized most common traffic offenses.  See, RCW 46.63.020.  In the process, it coined a new term, "traffic infractions," which it defined as follows:

             "Failure to perform any act required or the performance of any act prohibited by this title or an equivalent administrative regulation or local law, ordinance, regulation, or resolution relating to traffic including parking, standing, stopping, and pedestrian offenses, is designated as a traffic infraction . . . except for an offense contained in the following [thereafter listed] provisions of this title or a violation of an equivalent administrative regulation or local law, ordinance, regulation, or resolution:

             ". . ."  (RCW 46.63.020)

             Thus, it will be seen that a traffic infraction may involve either the violation of a state statute or a local, municipal ordinance.  Such a violation, however, is no longer a criminal offense.  Instead, any resulting prosecution is civil in nature, as are the monetary penalties which may be imposed.  See, RCW 46.63.110‑-46.63.120.  Nevertheless, the function of determining whether a traffic infraction has occurred remains a judicial function, as evidenced by RCW 46.63.040.  And, in turn, it is this statute, codifying § 7 of chapter 136, supra, which gives rise to your present question.

             The full text of RCW 46.63.040 reads as follows:

             "(1) All violations of state law, local law, ordinance, regulation, or resolution designated as traffic infractions in RCW 46.63.020 may be heard and determined by a district court, except as otherwise provided in this section.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

"(2) Any municipal or police court has the authority to hear and determine traffic infractions pursuant to this chapter.

             "(3) Any city or town with a municipal or police court may contract with the county to have traffic infractions committed within the city or town adjudicated by a district court.

             "(4) District court commissioners have the authority to hear and determine traffic infractions pursuant to this chapter."

             On its face, the statute does not purport to distinguish between those traffic infractions which constitute violations of state law and those which represent, instead, violations of some local ordinance or the like.  Therefore, we can understand how some individuals, reading the statute literally, have come to the conclusion that your question, as above paraphrased, is properly answerable in the affirmative.1/   Given the occurrence of a traffic infraction within the corporate limits of a city or town having its own municipal or police court, the negative inference to be gleaned from the reference to a contract in subsection (3) might well seem to be that in the absence of such a contract with the county ". . . to have traffic infractions committed within the city or town adjudicated by a district court . . ." it is that municipal or police court which, instead, is to hear and determine the alleged traffic infraction‑-to the exclusion of the district court which otherwise would have jurisdiction.

            In our opinion, however, such a reading of the statute is proper only if the person who has been cited is charged with a municipal ordinance violation and not, instead, with a violation of state law.  Conversely, if the defendant has been cited for a violation of state law, the proper court to hear  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] and determine the alleged traffic infraction is the district court for the district within which the infraction is claimed to have occurred‑-regardless of whether that situs is also within the corporate limits of a city or town.  Accordingly, we respectfully disagree with those who would respond to your question in the affirmative and, to the contrary, we answer it in the negative.

             In essence, although not expressly stated in the subject statute, we believe that the legislature meant to retain, and not to alter, the well-established preexisting jurisdictional distinction between state law violations and municipal ordinance violations in this area.2/ And therefore, we believe it proper to read into the troublesome language of subsections (2) and (3) of the statute, by implication, a qualification to the effect that those two subsections only apply to those traffic infractions committed within a city or town with a municipal or police court when the specified basis for the charge is a municipal ordinance and not a state law.

             We reach this result for two distinct reasons.  First, quite obviously, it avoids an otherwise unharmonious, even incongruous, result;i.e., the trial of persons charged by the state with violations of state law in the local police or municipal court of a city or town unless that city or town has elected to divest itself of the responsibility by contracting with the county in which it is located.  Thus, it is in line with the well-established principle of statutory construction as stated by the Court in In Re Horse Heaven Irrigation District, 11 Wn.2d 218, 226, 118 P.2d 972 (1941):

             "The courts, in pursuance of the general object of giving effect to the intention of the legislature, are not controlled by the literal meaning of the language of the statute, but the spirit or intention  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] of the law prevails over the letter thereof.  59 C.J. 964.

            "'Since all statutes must be interpreted before they can be applied, might not the rule be announced that all statutes are subject to construction, and if there be more than one possible construction, that meaning will be adopted which most reasonably seems to be the one intended by the legislature, after the court has considered all intrinsic and extrinsic aids.  Since in practice this largely represents the method actually pursued by the court in its search for the legislative intent, there should be no real objection to recognizing that which already is a reality.'  Crawford's Statutory Construction, 283, § 175.

             "It is a rule of such universal application as to need no citation of sustaining authority that no construction should be given to a statute which leads to gross injustice or absurdity."

             Second, and of even greater importance, our reading of the subject statute is also in accord with the further rule of statutory construction stated by the Court inSoundview Pulp Co. v. Taylor, 21 Wn.2d 261, 268, 150 P.2d 839 (1944) as follows:

             "There are statutes, however, in which their wording may be plain, but it may appear from such wording that a given statute may be applied in different ways, or some of the words may be susceptible of different meanings, and if applied, or the words are used in a certain way, the statute would be unconstitutional, or a grave doubt as to its validity would be raised.  In such cases the rule is that, where a statute is open to two constructions, one of which will render it constitutional and the other unconstitutional  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] or open to grave doubt in this respect, the former construction and not the latter is to be adopted.  State ex rel. Campbell v. Case, 182 Wash. 334, 47 P.(2d) 24; State ex rel. Dept. of Finance, Budget and Business v. Thurston County, 199 Wash. 398, 92 P.(2d) 234."

             In this instance, the constitutional problem which would be presented if RCW 46.63.040,supra, were construed to vest municipal courts with jurisdiction over state law traffic infractions (or vise versa) arises by reason of Article II, § 37 of the Washington Constitution which prescribes the manner in which the legislature may amend an existing statute.  That section of the constitution reads as follows:

             "No act shall ever be revised or amended by mere reference to its title, but the act revised or the section amended shall be set forth at full length."3/

              But, as explained above in footnote 2, pre‑existing statutes governing police or municipal courts in each of the several classes of cities give those courts exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving violations of a city ordinance.4/   And, read together with RCW 3.20.040 and RCW 3.66.060, supra, those same statutes at least inferentially deny municipal courts' jurisdiction over all state law violation cases.  Thus, the "grave constitutional doubt" regarding RCW 46.63.040, supra, if construed in such manner as to alter that jurisdictional line of demarcation, seems evident.  Conversely, if construed in the manner we here suggest, the statute is rendered constitutionally valid.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 7]]

            Summary:

             For the foregoing reasons, in summary, it is our opinion that your question (as above stated) is properly answerable in the negative.  RCW 43.63.040,supra, does not vest a municipal or police court with jurisdiction over a traffic infraction based on an alleged violation of state law‑-as distinguished from one involving a local, municipal ordinance.  Therefore, such a court does not have exclusive, or even concurrent, jurisdiction over a traffic infraction case which is so based, even in the absence of a contract with the county to have those traffic infractions committed within the city or town adjudicated by a district court.5/

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

 Very truly yours,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General 

PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General 

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   *** 

1/You have advised us that representatives of several cities with whom you have had contact have expressed that view. 

2/The former, i.e., state law violations, were subject to the concurrent jurisdiction of the appropriate (depending upon where the offense occurred) district court or superior court under RCW 3.20.040 and RCW 3.66.060, and the latter, municipal ordinance violations, were subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the police or municipal court of the city or town whose ordinance was alleged to have been violated.  See, RCW 35.20.030 (cities over 400,000 in population), RCW 35.22.460 (first-class cities), RCW 35.23.600 (second-class cities), RCW 35.24.460 (third-class cities), RCW 35.27.530 (towns) and RCW 35A.20.040 (code cities). 

3/And see also, such recent cases involving Article II, § 37, supra, as Washington Education Ass'n v. State, 93 Wn.2d 37, 604 P.2d 950 (1980);Weyerhaeuser Co. v. King County, 91 Wn.2d 721, 592 P.2d 1108 (1979);Flanders v. Morris, 88 Wn.2d 183, 558 P.2d 769 (1977) andNaccarato v. Sullivan, 46 Wn.2d 67, 278 P.2d 641 (1955).

 4/See again, RCW 35.20.030, RCW 35.22.460, RCW 35.23.600, RCW 35.24.460, RCW 35.27.530 and RCW 35A.24.040, supra.

5/The proper function of such a contract under the statute, as we construe it, is simply to allow for the exercise of jurisdiction by a district court over those traffic infractions which are based upon a municipal ordinance along the lines generally contemplated by the preexisting state interlocal cooperation act, chapter 39.34 RCW.  See, in particular RCW 39.34.080. 

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