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Oregon Considers Ditching Driving Suspensions For Unpaid Tickets

<p>A road sign alerting drivers to a change in traffic patterns is seen on northbound Naito Parkway Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. Construction on the Multnomah County Central Courthouse occurs in the background.</p>

Bryan M. Vance

A road sign alerting drivers to a change in traffic patterns is seen on northbound Naito Parkway Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. Construction on the Multnomah County Central Courthouse occurs in the background.

Angela Donley’s mother got the speeding ticket at the worst time: while rushing to the hospital, where her husband was suffering a medical emergency.

When her husband eventually died, Donley says her mother lost track of the citation while trying to hold her life together. The fine went unpaid. Donley's mother's license was suspended.

Twenty-five years later, it still hasn’t been reinstated.

“My mom had to keep driving, because she had to continue to survive,” Donley told Oregon state lawmakers on Wednesday, adding that the woman quickly became a target for police in small-town Bend. “She regularly got pulled over — more fines, more time added on to her suspension ... . The fees piled up to the point where she threw her hands up and decided there was no way she could ever pay it.”

Tens of thousands of Oregon drivers fall into similar circumstances each year. Now Oregon lawmakers are once again considering a bill that would put an end to such scenarios.

Under House Bill 4065, the state would no longer have authority to issue driving suspensions simply because someone didn’t pay off a traffic infraction. The change would kick in on Oct. 1, and any suspensions issued beforehand would remain in force.

The bill, which has support from police agencies around the state, is aimed at ensuring low-income Oregonians are not put in an untenable position because they cannot pay for a ticket. It’s similar to laws that have already been adopted in states like Montana, California and Idaho, and which are being considered elsewhere.

Under current law, the state can suspend driving privileges if a motorist doesn't pay their fine within 60 days after a judgment is issued against them. Suspensions can last up to 20 years if they do not pay.

Supporters of HB 4065 say that system is too harsh. They argue courts can still collect payments via wage garnishments, collections agencies or withheld tax refunds without issuing a license suspension.

“Drivers licenses should not be held as hostage for payment,” said state Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, a sponsor of the bill. “There are other ways to collect.”

Backers also point out that driving privileges could still be suspended for drunk driving or reckless driving, as well as when a person fails to show up for court for a traffic ticket.

“All of that stays in place because it’s about safety,” said Alicia Temple of the Oregon Law Center. “Really we just want to change it when [a suspension] is about debt."

There’s a racial equity component to the bill, as well. Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton presented statistics that suggest some people of color are far more likely to have suspended driving privileges than white motorists, despite being stopped far less.

For instance, while black motorists made up 2.6% of OSP stops in 2019, more than 13% of those motorists had suspended licenses. By contrast, white motorists made up 80% of police stops, but less than 6% had suspended licenses.

“We need our cars to get to work, to better our lives, to support our families,” said Hampton, noting that people who drive without a license often rack up hundreds of dollars in new fines. “To have 13 percent of a demographic that does not have the ability to drive is just unacceptable. I fear as a profession, now as a system, we may be unwittingly ushering citizens into the criminal justice system, into long-term economic hardship.”

While the Oregon State Police has not taken an official position on the bill, other agencies have. HB 4065 is backed by the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs.

“We just at the end of the day feel it’s much safer for people to be driving with licenses, with insurance,” said Michael Selvaggio, the group’s lobbyist. “A suspended license does not mean that a person has no reason to drive.”

But HB 4065, which is similar to a bill that died in the 2019 session, has some opponents, too.

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, opposed last year's bill. She pointed out Wednesday that the state already offers “hardship permits” that allow those with suspended licenses to drive to their jobs, medical appointments and other necessary destinations. However, such permits cost $125, and require applicants to submit paperwork that can include tax documents and a letter from employers.

The sole audience member to testify against the bill was Jane Aiken, a municipal judge for the city of Salem. She worried that the bill would render courts powerless to collect fines and would be taken advantage of by a wide range of motorists.

“This bill will render the motor vehicle code not a code of violations to be enforced, but to be ignored,” Aiken said. “It will be guidelines only in terms of its practical effect ... . When are you going to get anyone to comply with the law voluntarily?”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.