PORTLAND — A federal judge recently shot down a class action lawsuit seeking to end Oregon’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people who can’t pay fines. Two members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were among the six plaintiffs suing Oregon over “traffic debt.”
The nonprofit Oregon Law Center filed the lawsuit in September 2018 in federal court in Portland on behalf of Cindy Mendoza and Gloria Bermudez of Portland; Jeremy Chase of Vancouver, Washington; Karl Wade Roberts of Baker City; Rebecca Heath of Pendleton; and Cekais Toni Ganuelas of Mission. According to the complaint, the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles Division “suspended Oregonians’ driver’s licenses 334,338 times for failure to pay fines, costs and fees arising from minor traffic citations, and the state has suspended the licenses for as many as 10 percent of Oregonians, or more than 300,000 people.”
About 13 percent of the state’s population — more than 536,000 people — live below the poverty line, the law center asserted, and the suspensions land the hardest on those without the ability to pay, yet the DMV does not take that into account when yanking driving privileges. That amounts to violating constitutional rights due to prices and equal protection, according to the complaint.
“The DMV should refrain from suspending the driver’s licenses of low-income individuals who cannot afford to pay their traffic debt,” the pleading asserted, and “implement an ability-to-pay determination process that comports with due process and equal protection prior to suspending driver licenses for failure to pay traffic debt, and provide subsequent opportunities to lift suspensions because of indigence.”
The lawsuit named key transportation officials as defendants: Matthew Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation; Tammy Baney, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission; Sean O’Hollaren, Bob Van Brocklin and Martin Callery, all members of the transportation commission; and Tom McClellan, administrator of Driver and Motor Vehicles Division, which is under ODOT’s roof.
Ganuelas in a declaration to the court stated her driving trouble started in 2012 when she was not able to pay the Pendleton Municipal Court $150 for failure to display plates. The court notified the DMV, which suspended her license.
She received several citations for driving while suspended and in July 2018 lost her bartending job, where she earned about $400 a week in wages and tips, because of transportation difficulties. The loss of her driving privileges makes it hard to find new work and affects her daughter, who has been unable to participate in youth sports because of unreliable transportation.
Ganuelas stated she owes more than $750 to three courts, according to the statement, but she cannot afford to pay the debts, and no one at the DMV asked about her ability to pay fines.
Heath in her declaration stated she lost her license in 1995 after missing court for an out-of-state ticket. That led to suspensions for failure to pay fines. That debt has expired, but she told the court she lives on a fixed income and cannot pay the $149 fee to reinstate her license.
The East Oregonian was not able to contact Ganuelas or Heath, and a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center did not return a call before deadline.
The Oregon Law Center also asked the federal court for an injunction to compel the state to remove the suspensions on the plaintiffs’ driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic debt and waive reinstatement and issuance fees. The center also asked the court to ensure Oregon does not suspend the plaintiffs’ licenses again for failure to pay traffic debt “unless and until plaintiffs have had the opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay … through a procedure that comports with due process.”
United States District Judge Marco A. Hernandez in a December ruling denied the injunction in a 63-page ruling, concluding: “I recognize that Plaintiffs’ economic situations are marginal and the loss of their driver’s licenses for their inability to pay their traffic debt burdens their lives with little chance that the state will actually collect full payment. Nonetheless, their predicaments, as desperate as they may be, do not raise constitutional claims.”
The state in March asked the judge to dismiss the case in a 42-page motion, arguing among other points the pleading failed to state a claim. That is, while the allegations are true, they do not establish a cause for legal action.
Hernandez on May 16 sided with the state and dismissed the case once and for all. He cited in part the injunction ruling and stated Oregon provides traffic debtors ways to address the debt.
“Given the nature of the right at issue,” the judge concluded, “the low risk of erroneous deprivation, and the strong interest in enforcing traffic fines, the Oregon statutes comport with procedural due process requirements.”
The Oregon Law Center on June 13 filed a notice of appeal.