SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are considering putting a stop to license suspensions for drivers who don't pay fines for certain traffic tickets.
Every year, thousands of Oregon drivers get tickets for non-criminal traffic offenses. Suspending licenses for unpaid fines unfairly punishes poor people who can't afford the full weight of the fines and accrue more debt, advocates say.
In 2017, the state DMV issued about 90,000 warnings to people who didn't pay their fines in a 35-day window. If the fines aren't paid or the driver doesn't get on a payment plan, the license is automatically suspended 60 days later. That same year, about 20,000 licenses were rescinded.
House Bill 2614 would prevent courts from suspending licenses of drivers who haven't paid their non-criminal traffic fines on time. But with about three weeks left in the session, it has yet to receive a floor vote and hasn't budged from the committee it's been held in since March.
House Democratic Leader Jennifer Williamson, of Portland, a chief sponsor of the bill, said a license suspension is "an unnecessary barrier" for people in poverty. "The idea that you would lose your license because you're too poor to pay your fees and your fines doesn't do anything for the system," Williamson said in a recent interview. "It doesn't make us any safer, it doesn't increase the ability for people to pay if they can't afford their fees or fines."
'Being poor is expensive'
In recent years, more attention has been paid to the impact that punitive fines have on people without means.
Lawyers for American Civil Liberties Union and the American Legislative Exchange Council, unlikely allies, recently teamed up on an op-ed in The New York Times to criticize the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fines.
Advocates say that suspending licenses as a tool to collect a debt in many cases just leads to more debt. A single non-criminal offense often costs more for someone who can't afford it than someone who has the money to pay, say, $200 on the spot.
Even the payment plans approved by a court can be burdensome for a person making minimum wage, according to testimony on the bill. For suspended licenses, the DMV charges drivers $75 to get their license back.
"Being poor is really expensive," said Alicia Temple, legislative advocate for the Oregon Law Center, in testimony in February. "If you get a $200 ticket and you can't pay it, suddenly you owe a lot more."
Meanwhile, hardship permits, which allow drivers whose licenses have been suspended to get to and from work, can be expensive and difficult to get, advocates say.
Although the state's poverty rate has been decreasing since 2012, according to the Oregon Employment Department, about 13 percent of Oregonians still lived below the poverty level in 2017.
About four in 10 American adults would have difficulty coming up with the money to pay an unexpected $400 expense, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve.
Williamson said she believes her colleagues support her proposal, part of what she said is an ongoing effort by lawmakers to tackle the two-tier justice system — one for people of means, one for people who are poor.
Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, a retired Portland police officer who also is a lead sponsor of the bill, told colleagues during testimony that the state has other options to collect fines that drivers owe, such as sending people to collections and garnishing wages and tax returns.
A financial detriment?
Some critics have said that public entities could lose money.
After voters enacted property tax limits in the 1990s, Oregon's cities and counties increasingly rely on money collected through fines and fees to support public services, according to a report last year from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Williamson, though, noted the state isn't getting that money because people aren't paying.
"I don't believe it's a financial detriment to the court system because these folks just aren't paying in the first place," Williamson said.
Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, who testified against the bill in February, told lawmakers that group is open to reforming the state's suspension practices for people without means.
A 20-year suspension for failure to pay fines — that's the length of time under state law a license is suspended, unless the fine is paid or a payment plan is arranged — likely deserves reconsideration, Winkels said.
"But if you have somebody who is simply not communicating with the court, they're not taking accountability for the hazard that was caused, that generated the infraction, we believe that suspension is appropriate in that area," Winkels said.
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, who voted against moving the bill out of committee, said that fines can escalate because of "your own choices" and that hardship permits were an alternative.
"We all know for a fact that you can be cited for X, whatever X is," Sprenger said during the hearing, "But, based on your handling, whether it's paying or not paying, your handling of X, gets more expensive through your own choices."
Before January, drivers couldn't get a hardship permit if they had unpaid fines. Temple told lawmakers that hardship permits continue to be "limiting" and expensive.
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