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Phoenix Takes Lead In Clearing Old Traffic Debt

City of Phoenix

The small Southern Oregon town of Phoenix is taking the lead in dismissing old traffic court debt, which can often haunt low-income people for years.

As of October last year, Oregon stopped automatically suspending people’s driver’s licenses if they didn’t pay a traffic citation in time. But previous suspensions are still in force.

Tracy Chavez of Bend has had her license suspended for over 26 years because of a traffic citation issued in Phoenix.

“That made it hard to find a job, to get her kids to where they needed to go, to go to the grocery store to buy food,” says her attorney, Emily Teplin Fox of the Oregon Law Center. “And like a lot of people, she accumulated additional fees and fines and saw the amounts she owed balloon.”

As part of a settlement agreement, the city agreed to clear all debt that people owe to the now-closed Phoenix Municipal Court from October 2010 or earlier.

“It's a really common sense, practical, and innovative approach to handling old traffic debt,” Teplin Fox says. “We’re very happy with what the city has done and hope other cities will follow suit.”

Attorneys with the Oregon Law Center say tens of thousands of Oregonians still have their licenses suspended because of debt they accrued in other cities before October 2020. The nonprofit has a pending case against the Oregon Department of Transportation for these suspensions, which currently sits at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.