Two new measures in Oregon and Nevada turned minor traffic offenses from criminal matters into civil matters at the stroke of the new year. The result is many thousands of drivers will be able to restore suspended driving licenses, have bench warrants cleared, and not worry that an inability to pay civil fines in the future will land them in jail. The process in Oregon entailed two steps. First, Governor Kate Brown signed House Bill 4210 in 2020, the bill prohibiting the state from suspending a resident's driver's license for not paying traffic fines applied for minor infractions. The bill doesn't affect suspensions for misdemeanor or felony infractions like driving under the influence.
Second, Brown ordered that all outstanding court fines up to the time HB 4210 came into effect on October 1, 2020 be cleared from court records. The governor's office said the order covers nearly 7,000 drivers and about $1.8 million in unpaid fines that state circuit courts have on the record. The actual number is higher because it doesn't count fees issued by municipal and justice courts, those amounts shielded from the state Department of Motor Vehicles for some reason. Much of the total sum is considered uncollectable, though, being more than three years old. Most people who can pay do so quickly, so when a debt languishes for years, payment is unlikely.
The order doesn't clear a driver's record of court-issued sanctions besides the fine, like court-ordered restitution. The upshot is that all the roughly 7,000 drivers in the circuit court system with suspended licenses for unpaid fines can soon reapply to get their driving privileges back. The Oregon Capital Chronicle said the courts will begin sending notices of reinstatement to the DMV, and drivers can let the DMV know they believe their license should be restored.
Meanwhile, in Nevada, Assembly bill 116 gained the force of law on January 1, removing the threat of a criminal charge for drivers who can't pay their fines for minor traffic violations. Before, if a driver was cited for not using a turn signal and didn't pay the fine, the state would issue a bench warrant, opening the driver up to being arrested if they got stopped again. The law downgrades such small peccadillos from criminal misdemeanors into civil violations with civil penalties. Unlike in Oregon, no one is having their fines cleared. As in Oregon, real bad behavior like racing or driving without a license is still a misdemeanor.
Now that those with outstanding fines applied before January 1, 2023 cannot be arrested, Nevada's city courts are clearing bench warrants from their systems. The Nevada Review Journal said Las Vegas Municipal Court erased almost 35,000 warrants, North Las Vegas added another 16,000, and Reno cleared 1,900. Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen said, "This law is significant because it ends a cycle of debt that stems from a simple traffic violation that many people find themselves in because they are unable to pay it."