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Many Oregon drivers undeterred by suspended licenses

By Nick Morgan Mail Tribune

MEDFORD, Ore. – Every year, local police agencies catch hundreds of motorists who aren’t supposed to be behind the wheel.

Over the course of just a few hours on Dec. 7, Jackson County sheriff’s deputies caught six drivers with suspended licenses during a special patrol set up on North Foothill Road to catch speeders.

While it may seem unusual for the police to catch six people driving without a valid license on one road in a short time span, sheriff’s Sgt. Julie Denney said it wasn’t particularly surprising for police in southern Oregon.

In 2017, the sheriff’s office issued 984 citations for driving while suspended on county roads, according to Denney. That number doesn’t include the 859 arrests and citations for driving while suspended in Medford last year.

The number of people caught for driving while suspended in Jackson County last year was the highest it’s been in four years, up 9.8 percent over 896 citations and arrests in 2016. But Denney said she doesn’t believe there’s been an increase in the number drivers behind the wheel who aren’t supposed to be. Instead, Denney points to a traffic enforcement team fully staffed to four deputies since January 2017.

“We’re just out there making more traffic stops and finding them,” Denney said.

Medford police Sgt. Don Lane said the 859 arrests and citations in 2017 are “a touch low” because a handful of cases are still being processed. That number is similar to the 867 citations in 2016.

Reasons why people drive with suspended licenses can be trivial. For example, Lane recalled a recent stop in which a woman who knew she had a suspended license was stopped for speeding and making an illegal turn.

?’I had no other way to get my dogs,“’ Lane recounted her saying.

When Lane told the woman someone needs to move her car lest it be impounded, she said her mother could pick it up.

“Well, why didn’t your mom come get your dogs?” Lane asked aloud.

Driving while suspended can be a mere traffic violation depending on the scenario, but the risks can be far greater than a ticket, according to Denney.

For starters, suspended drivers are rarely insured. Even if they are driving an insured vehicle, policies typically don’t cover drivers without a valid license.

A lack of insurance is one of the key factors Lane said he weighs when determining whether a stopped vehicle should be impounded, calling uninsured drivers a “liability to citizens.” Lane said the Medford Police Handbook, updated in September, requires a safety reason to impound a car.

“Impounding a vehicle is not to be punishment,” Lane said. “It’s to prohibit them from not only violating the law further, but to protect the community.”

For those who wonder why police can’t just seize every suspended driver’s car, the policy stems from a recent ruling in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Los Angeles police, which ordered that agency not to hold impounded cars for longer than 30 days without justification.

“There has to be a public safety concern,” Lane said.

Most driving-while-suspended citations begin with another traffic violation, such as speeding or running a stop sign, but Lane said that if officers recognize a driver they know to be suspended or revoked, that is enough probable cause to make a stop.

Under Oregon law, penalties for driving while suspended or revoked vary, depending on factors such as the reason for the suspension. It can be a Class A traffic violation carrying a presumptive fine of $435 in scenarios such as failure to pay court-imposed fines, fees or child support.

It’s a Class A misdemeanor if the suspension stemmed from a misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence of intoxicants or recklessly endangering another person.

It’s a Class B felony if the license suspension or revocation stemmed from cases such as vehicular manslaughter or felony DUII – typically a third offense.

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