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Facing Driving-While-Suspended Charge in Oregon? DMV Has Thousands of Inaccurate Records, So You May Actually Be Innocent. But Other Innocent Drivers Already Sent to Prison

by Jo Ellen Nott

Oregon law enforcement stopped Nicholas Chappelle on January 30, 2022, for expired tags. When the officer ran them, Chapelle appeared in DMV records as having a suspended license.

A previous suspension had expired in 2021, but the Oregon DMV database of driver’s licenses is mismanaged and incorrect, leaving the officer with no way to know Chappelle’s license was in fact valid. 

The DMV had Chappelle’s suspension as lasting until 12/31/9999, according to its records. A prosecutor submitted an affidavit of probable cause to support the driving-while-suspended charge, and a Columbia County judge ordered Chappelle held in custody. Chappelle waived his right to a grand jury hearing and pleaded guilty the next month. He spent 11 months in jail convicted by faulty evidence.

There are two things dreadfully wrong in this scenario.  First, Chappelle pleaded guilty to a crime he didn’t commit in hopes of quickly resolving his case (something that happens every day all across America). But, as TechDirt’s Tim Cushing pointed out, that plan did not work so well for Chappelle. The judge sentenced him to a year and a half in prison based on faulty information from the DMV. When you are an average citizen, days are critical if you have a job and pay rent or have a mortgage. Months without income begin to wreck you financially. Nearly a year behind bars is catastrophic, Cushing notes.

The second wrong of the scenario? The DMV in Oregon has incorrectly recorded approximately 3,000 driver’s licenses over the last 20 years as suspended indefinitely through either 12/31/9999 or 00/00/0000 according to The Oregonian. If a public records request had not been made by the newspaper, or prosecutors in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Justice Integrity Unit had not discovered Chappelle’s case – and at least five other wrongful arrests and convictions – the erroneous records problem would have remained a dirty little secret.  

The Oregonian reported in its coverage, “The DMV has no idea how many people have been charged and prosecuted because of the erroneous records, but DMV administrator Amy Joyce acknowledges the problem has gone unaddressed for years.” According to one DMV administrator, the DMV did become aware of the issue at some unspecified point in the past, but it “wasn’t at a high enough level to understand the urgency” to try to fix the issue.

The good people of Oregon continue shelling out taxpayer dollars to fund the DMV, an agency whose errors allow the justice system to wrongfully charge and convict innocent motorists. Deputy district attorneys in Multnomah County have been to able flag more than 30 driving-while-suspended cases in which the integrity of the arrest or conviction is in question. How many more cases are there in the rest of Oregon?  

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