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An Oregon man was wrongly imprisoned for almost a year because of an error in a DMV database

Nicholas Chappelle spent almost a year in an Oregon prison after he was wrongfully convicted of driving with a suspended license. The reason for his incarceration? A shoddy DMV database. And the worst part is he’s not alone.

While it’s unclear just how many Oregonians have been wrongfully arrested or convicted due to errors in the database, at least 3,000 licenses have been mislabeled as indefinitely suspended. At least five wrongful arrests or convictions have been identified.

According to The Oregonian, the issue stems from an error-prone practice in the database of suspended licenses at the state’s department of Driver & Motor Vehicles Services. In Oregon, license suspensions don’t take effect until a person has completed their prison or jail sentence. In the meantime, their licenses are listed as essentially permanently suspended, recorded in the database as suspended until “12/31/9999” or “00/00/0000.” According to The Oregonian, around 3000 licenses are currently being affected.

Once a suspended license holder is released from prison or jail, the state requires them to notify the DMV that they have been released in order to start counting time toward their actual suspension. However, according to The Oregonian, prison and jail officials haven’t even been giving out the necessary forms to released inmates because they don’t know who is facing license suspensions. When these former inmates get pulled over, they are likely to be arrested for driving with a suspended license, even if the actual tenure of their suspension is over.

What results is a convoluted system, where thousands of Oregonians face a false arrest or conviction due to a simple yet pervasive procedural error. For individuals like Chappelle, this error can be life-altering.

Chappelle was imprisoned for 11 months after he pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license. He was innocent, but he pleaded guilty to the felony anyway. The Oregonian reports that during his imprisonment in a medium-security facility far from home, Chappelle lost his job as a union ironworker and missed the birth of his son. The wrongful conviction wasn’t noticed until prosecutors in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Justice Integrity Unit found his caseā€”and at least five other wrongful arrests and convictions.

The Oregonian reports, “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 problem is maddening, and the status quo of requiring former inmates to correct the DMV’s own errors is particularly cruel. “The state inhales tax dollars to oversee an accurate database,” wrote TechDirt‘s Tim Cushing. “Those being taxed should not be expected to correct the state’s errors. The state is being paid to do this job.”

Now, DMV officials say they’re working to fix the issue. However, the process appears to be moving slowly, requiring the collaboration of both the DMV and the Oregon Department of Corrections. “We’re still hashing out with DOC how this is going to work exactly,” the DMV administrator told The Oregonian.

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March 2023
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