People who can't pay traffic fines lose their license and get stuck in poverty. Legislation seeks to change that.
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People who can't pay traffic fines lose their license and get stuck in poverty. Legislation seeks to change that.

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Oregon State Capitol

Angela Donley sat in front of a legislative panel on Wednesday and told the story of why her mother driver’s license has been suspended for 25 years.

While growing up in Bend, her stepfather had a stroke. Her mother rushed to the hospital and got a speeding ticket on the way. Her husband later died and with four kids to take care of, the ticket was the last thing on her mind.

Donley recalled how her mother had no choice but to drive. The police knew her car and knew she didn’t have a license. The car was impounded, leaving the family on the side of the road. The fees and fines piled up.

Finally, the state took her license.

“So as you can imagine that these piled up to the point where she threw her hands up and just decided there was no way she could ever pay it,” said Donley.

To this day, her 56-year-old mother rides a bike in Bend, even in the winter and at night to get to her job. Donley asked lawmakers to pass House Bill 4065, aimed at situations like her mother’s that had its hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 5.

In Oregon, courts can suspend someone’s driver’s license for not paying common traffic tickets. Rep. Chris Gorsek, a Troutdale Democrat who sponsored the bill, explained that taking away someone’s driver’s license makes it harder for them to get to work and earn money needed to pay off the fines. Getting the license back requires even more fees he said.

If passed during the short session, the bill would end the practice of courts suspending a driver’s license because of unpaid fines.

Proponents of the bill argued that people become trapped in poverty after losing their license.

In Oregon, 334,338 licenses have been suspended in the last decade for failure to pay fines, a figure that doesn’t count suspensions for safety reasons, according to a fact sheet from the Oregon Law Center. Montana, Idaho, California and Mississippi have enacted similar laws.

Martin Campos-Davis, executive director of farmworker advocacy group Oregon Human Development Corp., testified that the suspensions disproportionately affect low-income Oregonians and minorities. He said it’s particularly problematic for farmworkers who have limited access to public transportation.

“For some reason, farm work across the state does not fall neatly into public transportation routes,” he said.

During the hearing, Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, said that drivers can currently apply to get their license restored if they can prove that a suspension would be a hardship. But Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, pointed out that the process involves extensive paperwork and application fees totally $125.

Alicia Temple, legislative advocate for the Oregon Law Center, said that suspensions related to safety issues, such as driving under the influence or racking up an excessive amount of tickets, would not be affected by the legislation. She said it would also require people to agree to a plan to pay their fines.

Travis Hampton, superintendent of the Oregon State Police, presented the committee with data showing that minorities in the state had a disproportionate amount of suspensions. For example, he said that African Americans are below 2% of the state’s population but 13% of black drivers stopped by police have suspended licenses.

“I fear as a profession, and now as a system, we may be unwittingly ushering citizens into the criminal justice system into long-term economic hardship, possibly generational hardship, if we disallow them from having a driver's license,” he said.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or jake@salemreporter.com or @jakethomas2009.

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