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Phoenix clears way for return of driver's licenses

Pledging to forgive court debt and discount traffic fines, the city of Phoenix has forged an agreement that paves the way for fewer uninsured drivers.

The city in December reached a legal settlement with Tracy Chavez, a grandmother whose driver’s license was suspended for more than 26 years as a penalty for not paying traffic tickets. An October change in Oregon law that leaves drivers in possession of their licenses, despite failure to pay fines, supported lawyers’ arguments for fair, realistic treatment of Chavez and other suspended drivers whose court cases are more than 10 years old.

“It really is a win-win situation,” said Emily Teplin Fox of Oregon Law Center in Portland. “Old court debt can be a huge financial burden to low-income people, worsening their poverty and making it hard to find or keep a job. And jurisdictions seldom collect such old debt.”

The agreement clears debt on old Phoenix Municipal Court cases from the city’s books and frees staff from the often dead-end task of attempting to contact offenders for payment, said Doug McGeary, attorney for the city. Anyone whose license was suspended in connection with those cases will see it reinstated, he said.

For debt incurred within the past decade, the city is offering a 50% discount through May 1 to drivers who still owe fines, payable to Jackson County Justice Court, which took over cases from Phoenix Municipal Court when it closed several years ago. Justice Court has authority to approve payment plans and clear suspensions in those cases.

“Phoenix has taken a commonsense, humane approach to court debt,” said Fox. “We hope other jurisdictions will follow their lead.”

Fewer uninsured drivers are in the interests of the community at large, said Fox and McGeary. License suspension usually is a barrier to obtaining insurance, the result of a “downward spiral” into a “deep pit,” said Fox, that can start with failing to pay a single ticket inflated with unaffordable minimum monthly payments and penalties for late payments.

Chavez’s fines, incurred primarily before 2000, totaled thousands of dollars — far beyond her means to pay, said McGeary. Chavez, formerly of White City but now residing in Bend, is expected to regain her license early this year and can obtain insurance, said Fox. At least 100 other drivers will benefit from the settlement, said McGeary.

“Now, it puts everybody in the same place,” he said, explaining that the decision came in the spirit of fairness to people convicted of traffic violations prior to the recent change in state law.

The city of Phoenix, said McGeary, had been negotiating with Oregon Law Center since late 2019. Admitting no fault, said McGeary, the city cooperated with the legal aid nonprofit, rather than face a lawsuit.

“So we’re not really losing anything,” said McGeary, agreeing with Oregon Law Center that fines outstanding for a decade or longer effectively are forfeit. “It’s a nuisance for the city.”

McGeary said he’s trying to promote community mindedness with the suggestion that offenders who still owe traffic fines can reduce them by up to $360 by making reusable cloth face masks as a form of community service. Anyone hoping to take full advantage of that program would need to make about 30 face masks, which he’s calculating have a value of $12 apiece, equivalent to Oregon’s hourly minimum wage.

“Maybe they’ll make a mask,” he said.

The city of Phoenix website will be updated with more information about the settlement and how to take advantage of its terms, said McGeary. City staff, he added, are still working to bring all of its related records up to date.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Traffic travels through downtown Phoenix on Thursday.