Drivers with Suspended Licenses in Oregon Need Debt Relief

By Claudia Wilner, Director of Litigation and Advocacy

11 million people across the U.S. are prohibited from driving because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees. Most of those drivers are people of color. In Oregon, Black and Indigenous drivers are stopped and cited by police for driving with a suspended license vastly more than other drivers. They receive 26% of charges even though they only comprise 4% of Oregon’s population. 

In 2020, Oregon enacted legislation to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. Oregon is one of nine states leading the way. Since 2017, New York, California, Mississippi, Montana, Idaho, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. enacted similar legislation. 

But in Oregon people who had their licenses suspended before the change are still trapped in a poverty cycle, unable to pay the fines and punished by courts without consideration of their ability to pay.  

Cindy Mendoza could not afford to pay a $400 speeding ticket in 2010. Her court costs and fees subsequently more than doubled. The court automatically directed Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend her driver license for nonpayment without asking about why she couldn’t pay. It took Ms. Mendoza five years to pay off the inflated traffic debt and get back her license, but needing to drive in the meantime led to another citation. Her debts ballooned to more than $11,000 owed to three different courts, and because she could not afford to pay, she lost her license for 20 years.  

On December 8, NCLEJ and Civil Rights Corps filed an amicus brief supporting Cindy Mendoza’s case. Our brief was filed on behalf of members of the Free to Drive Coalition, a national coalition of over a hundred organizations working to end debt-based driver’s license suspension.  

We must dismantle the unfair, racially charged system of license suspensions. These suspensions disproportionately harm Black, Latinx and Indigenous people. And, all available research shows that debt-based driver’s license suspension is counterproductive. License suspensions hurt the economy. Without a license, people can’t get to work or school. And it’s dangerous to make it so difficult for people to access medical care and hospitals—places you need a car to get to. These suspensions undermine public safety. The system focuses law enforcement on suspensions, taking them away from true public safety problems.  

Laws are changing to address license suspensions. But many states are still out of touch with reality. Suspending licenses of people who experience poverty will not get them to pay. Over 126,000 Oregonians, disproportionately people of color, are bearing the heavy burdens of this unfair cycle.