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City of Phoenix Shows Heart! Excuses Past Traffic Fines.

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Bill Clinton was still president when Tracy Chavez was pulled over in Phoenix, Oregon. It was a minor traffic violation, but the result was a $200 fine—an amount she could not afford outright, and over the past decades only has grown with overdue fines and menace. The debt is so old that the municipal court in Phoenix which issued the fine closed long ago.

Even so, like thousands of other Oregonians, Chavez fell deeper into debt because of a minor traffic fine.

“Most people who cannot afford $200, definitely cannot pay $400,” explained Emily Teplin Fox, referring to additional fines levied when an initial fine isn’t paid. Fox is a lawyer with Oregon Law Center, and represented Chavez in a recent legal action requesting that the City of Phoenix excuse the decades-old debt from the additional fines. (Spoiler alert: They won!).

“Court debt can augment or even cause poverty,” Fox said. “We have clients who have struggled to find or keep a job after losing their driver license for not paying court debt they couldn’t afford; clients who choose between keeping up with a court debt payment plan or paying rent; clients who have seen their court debt grow exponentially as the years go on even though their ability to pay it never improve.”

Chevez is a prime example for this quagmire: Her license was first suspended in the early 1990s. At the time, she was driving to the hospital to visit the father of her youngest son. She was distracted; her partner was dying. She was pulled over, ticketed and, subsequently, did not attend the hearing; instead, she wrote a letter to the judge, explaining her family circumstances. At the time, Ms. Chavez had four children between the ages of 2 and 15, and was not employed. (So much time has passed since the initial violations that Chavez is now a grandmother.)

At the time, the court offered Chavez a $60-a-month payment plan. She made two payments, but was unable to make the final payment—and, as a response, the DMV suspended her license. After her partner’s death, Chavez was a single mother with four children. To find various jobs, she needed to drive; and, over the next decade, racked up additional traffic tickets in Bend, Eugene, Medford, and Portland; most for driving with a suspended license and driving uninsured. It was, what her lawyer called, “a deepening pit.”

Chavez is not alone. Thousands of Oregonians are unable to pay traffic fines and parking tickets each year, and that delinquency often is rewarded with even more fines. Fox calls the system “rigid and punitive.” Roughly 30,000 licenses are suspended each year in Oregon for failure to pay fines.

It is a system that does not make much real-world sense: Without money to pay the initial fine outright, it is even more unlikely the additional fines will be paid; ultimately, offering the State of Oregon and its county courts little more than a bookkeeping and bureaucratic headache, while individual Oregonians have their licenses suspended and credit scores gouged because they cannot pay the fines. It is a whirlpool from which neither the government or individuals can often escape. Overall, the state collects roughly two percent of this type debt.

But, Chavez’s case offers a glimmer of hope and sensibility. Chavez—who was a mother of four children at the time of the original infractions is now a grandmother—has been trying to remedy her past debts, and clear her record. Individual judges are allowed large leeway for each jurisdiction, and she is working off her fines in Eugene by knitting quilts for the Ronald McDonald House (so Eugene! and shown in picture), while the City of Phoenix took the gracious steps to excuse those fines outright.

Her attorney Fox congratulated the judge for his “commonsense, pragmatic” approach. “We hope other cities follow suit,” she added.


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