PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A new class action lawsuit filed against Oregon’s Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles accuses the agencies of discriminating against people living in poverty.
The lawsuit, filed on Friday, argues that poor Oregonians face discrimination when the DMV suspends driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees from minor traffic violations, such as speeding or failing to use a turn signal.
According to the lawsuit, debt quickly spirals out of control in Oregon if a person finds themselves unable to pay a traffic fine. If the debts aren’t paid in time, the DMV will be notified and will then suspend the driver’s license. The suspension will remain in place for 20 years, unless the traffic debt, including additional fees, is paid.
“For low-income drivers, paying a $115 to $440 fine for a traffic violation is an insurmountable obstacle,” lawyers for the Oregon Law Center wrote. “Unlike higher-income drivers who can afford to pay these fines, an indigent driver has no way to avoid suspension.”
The lawyers argue that drivers living in poverty who have suspended licenses are faced with two bad options: either continue driving on a suspended license and face further violations, or stop driving and suffer the consequences of not being able to properly care for themselves or their children. Many employers also require an active driver’s license for hiring.
According to the lawsuit, “The loss of a driver’s license affects the driver’s basic self-sufficiency. In addition to requiring a car to travel to work, most Oregonians must drive to obtain medical care, to travel to the grocery store to buy food and clothing, and to ensure the care and education of their children.”
The class-action suit is looking to stop the DMV from suspending drivers’ licenses due to unpaid debt and restore licenses that were previously suspended for this reason.
The Oregon lawsuit follows a growing trend nationwide questioning the practice of suspending licenses because of traffic debt. According to the Associated Press, California stopped the policy in 2017.
“Often, the primary consequence of a driver’s license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school,” California Governor Jerry Brown wrote in his January 2017 budget proposal.
The AP also reports that a federal judge in Tennessee ruled in July that a law allowing the state to revoke licenses of low-income people with unpaid court debt related to past criminal convictions is unconstitutional. Separate lawsuits are pending in North Carolina, Montana, Michigan, Virginia and Tennessee.
DMV Administrator Tom McClellan is named as a defendant in the Oregon suit, as is ODOT Administrator Matthew Garrett, who is responsible for supervising McClellan. Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Tammy Baney and members Sean O’Hollaren, Bob Van Brocklin, and Martin Callery are also being sued for their role in establishing and overseeing ODOT policies.
Oregon Law Center turned down KOIN 6 News’ request for an interview regarding the lawsuit. ODOT spokesperson David Thompson said the agency can’t comment on the pending lawsuit.