It is against Oregon law to drive when your driver's license is suspended or revoked. Breaking this law is called driving while suspended, or "DWS." When a license is suspended, it means the driving privileges are taken away until something happens, such as waiting a certain time period, purchasing insurance or paying fines. If a license is revoked, the license is taken away permanently, and the driver will have to start from scratch and apply for a new license if and when he or she becomes eligible. Either way, you cannot drive without permission from the DMV.
Driving while suspended is a serious offense. The legal rules involved are complex and are frequently changed or affected by the DMV, the legislature and the courts. If you are charged with misdemeanor driving while suspended or felony driving while suspended or revoked, it is an extremely serious crime. Even if the matter is being treated as a violation, a citation can be very expensive and cause future problems with your license. If you are charged with driving while suspended, you should immediately consult with an attorney, especially if the case is being prosecuted as a criminal matter.
Depending on why you are suspended or revoked and depending on the policies in your county, your case could be treated either as crime or as a violation. This can make a big difference. If you are being prosecuted criminally, there is a potential for up to a year in jail and $6,250 in fines for a misdemeanor. Felony driving while suspended or revoked can result in a prison sentence. The difference between driving while suspended as a violation or crime is the underlying reason for the suspension. If you were suspended for not paying a traffic ticket or guilty of four traffic infractions within the last two years, it will likely be a violation. Misdemeanor driving while suspended or violation driving while suspended will cancel your hardship permit upon conviction, so if you have a hardship license to drive for work purposes. If you were suspended for an assault, the driving while suspended is likely a felony driving while suspended and can result in a prison sentence. You definitely will need a lawyer, and if you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for you. If the case is being treated as a violation, there is no risk of jail, but the fines can still be quite high. You still should consult an attorney if you can afford it; the court will not provide one if your case is only a violation.
It also is against the law to drive if you don't have a license, or if your right to apply for one has been suspended or revoked or if you drive outside of the scope of your hardship permit. (The courts often require the DMV to suspend or revoke a person's driver's license when the person involved does not have a license or has a license from a state other than Oregon. When this happens, the DMV will suspend or revoke the individual's right to drive or to apply for an Oregon license.) A person who drives a motor vehicle at a time when his or her right to apply for an Oregon license has been suspended or revoked also commits the offense of driving while suspended.
Besides the possibility of a jail sentence and having to pay a fine, the registrations of all the vehicles the convicted person owns can be suspended for up to three months. The registration of the vehicle that the convicted person was driving at the time of arrest also can be suspended for up to 120 days. This will happen even if the convicted person is not the owner of the vehicle, if it is shown that the owner of the vehicle knew or had good reason to know that the convicted person did not have a valid driver's license and still let the suspended driver use his or her vehicle. In fact, someone who knowingly allows a suspended driver to drive his or her car can also get a citation. Then if the car is towed, the registered owner will have to pay any tow bills or fees to get the car back.
The court also can order another penalty for driving while suspended. It can have the vehicle impounded for up to three months. This means towed away, locked up and stored. The convicted person is responsible for the costs of towing and storing the vehicle, and the vehicle will not be returned until these costs are paid. If the vehicle is not claimed and these costs are not paid within 30 days after the impoundment period is up, the vehicle may be sold at public auction.
In some cases, the law requires the DMV to suspend or revoke a license. This is called a mandatory suspension or revocation. The suspension for an uninsured accident is an example of a mandatory suspension. In other cases, the law gives the DMV the power to choose whether or not to suspend a license, as in the case of a driver who becomes incompetent to drive because of ill health. This is a permissive suspension. In still other cases, a judge has the power to suspend a license in connection with traffic offense convictions. This is called a court-ordered suspension.
The type of suspension will affect what you have to do to be able to drive again. With a court-ordered suspension, such as for failure to appear or pay a fine, you will have to take care of your court matters to clear the suspension. You will then need to go to DMV to pay a reinstatement fee and provide proof of insurance. For a DMV suspension, such as for failing a breath test or an uninsured accident, you will deal directly with DMV.
The Most Frequent Causes for License Suspensions
Failure to report an accident.
Within 72 hours, every driver involved in a motor vehicle accident that causes death or injury, property damage of more than $1,500, or enough damage that any vehicle must be towed must file a written accident report with the DMV. (Accident report forms are available at DMV offices and on the DMV website.) This is true even if the police have made a report. Failure to report an accident, in addition to being a traffic offense itself, will result in a mandatory suspension that will continue indefinitely until the report is filed.
Failure to appear for a court hearing.
Every driver who gets a traffic citation must appear in court at the time and place indicated on the citation or respond to the ticket in some other way as allowed by law, such as mailing in the amount of the required base fine. If a driver fails to appear in court when required to do so, it will generally result in an indefinite license suspension until the court appearance is made. Further, a person who knowingly fails to make a court appearance when required to do so may be charged with the crime of failure to appear. Even failing to appear for a traffic ticket will result in a default and then suspension of your driving privileges. To have your license reinstated, you need to 1) appear so the court can vacate the failure to appear and 2) pay a reinstatement fee to DMV.
Failure to obey a court order.
For example, failure to pay a court-ordered fine or to complete a court-ordered driver safety education program can result in license suspension.
Failure to file proof of future financial responsibility when required to do so.
This usually means getting automobile liability insurance and filing a form ("SR-22") with the DMV to prove you did it. The most common situations that require a driver to file proof of financial responsibility are convictions for reckless driving or driving under the influence of intoxicants, or being involved in an uninsured accident. If a driver does not file the DMV form, the result will be a mandatory suspension.
Failure to pass a breath test or refusal to take the breath test, blood test or urine test.
Another common cause for suspension is failing a breath test if you are arrested for DUII. If your test shows that your blood alcohol level is above the legal limit, then your license will be suspended for at least 90 days (if you have a prior diversion or breath-test related suspension within the past five years, then the suspension period would be one year). Refusal to take the breath test results in a suspension of at least one year. The DMV must suspend your license for these periods, unless you request a hearing within 10 days of the arrest. If you are later convicted of DUII, the judge will suspend your license for an additional amount of time, depending on how many DUII convictions you have.
Remember, these are just the most common reasons for suspension, not all of them. If you have any doubt about your driver's license status, you should call any DMV field office and request verification.
Sometimes, you may be allowed to resume driving in limited circumstances, such as directly to and from work, on the job, or only during certain hours. This is often called a "hardship permit." You cannot get a hardship permit if you are suspended for failure to pay a fine or to have insurance. Because the rules and eligibility requirements depend on your own circumstances, you should talk to the DMV. If a judge suspended your license, you may also have to get the court's permission for a hardship permit. If you get a hardship permit, be careful to read it carefully and obey all the conditions. Driving outside the restrictions is the same as driving while suspended. A driving-while-suspended conviction will revoke your hardship permit.
You'll Find Out by Mail (if DMV Has Your Current Address)
When a driver's license is suspended or revoked, the DMV must usually give notice of such action to the driver. The notice is given by mailing a copy of the suspension or revocation order to the driver by certified mail, restricted delivery, return receipt requested. The notice is sent to the driver's address shown on the DMV records.
All drivers should be aware that the law requires them to notify the DMV of any change of address within 30 days. If the DMV is not notified of the new address, the suspension notice will be sent to the old address and may end up not being received by the driver. Should this occur, the suspension will still be legal, although unknown to the driver. If the driver then gets charged with driving while suspended, the fact that the driver did not know about the suspension will not be considered as a defense to the charge. Also, refusing to sign the certified mail receipt or simply allowing the notice to go unclaimed will not prevent the suspension from going into effect.
Contesting the Suspension
In most cases, the driver has a right to a hearing before a DMV hearings officer to challenge the suspension. The request for a hearing must be made within a certain period of time, sometimes as little as 10 days, as specified in the notice of suspension. If a written request is made within the time limit, the hearing will be held before the proposed suspension begins. If you would like the police officer to appear in person then you must state that you want an in-person hearing so the parties are required to appear. Otherwise the hearing will be conducted over the phone. It is very important to consult with a lawyer to contest the suspension. You can request your own hearing online at the DMV website, but it is important to note that an experienced attorney will make additional requests that expand the scope of the hearing. If you want an attorney to help, it is best to allow the attorney to make the request.
In a prosecution for driving while suspended, the state does not have to prove that the driver knew that his or her license was suspended. Lack of such knowledge is no defense. The law provides only two defenses to a charge of driving while suspended. First, it is a defense if the driving was made necessary because of a real emergency. Such an emergency exists when there is an injury or immediate threat of injury to human or animal life, coupled with great urgency of circumstances making it necessary to drive a motor vehicle at the time and place in question. Second the defendant can argue he or she did not receive notice of suspension in the manner provided by Oregon law. However, this defense may not be asserted if the driver had changed his or her address and failed to notify the DMV; if the driver refused to sign the receipt for the certified mail that contained the suspension notice; if the driver had been informed by a judge at a previous court appearance that the license was being suspended; or if the driver had actual knowledge of the suspension by any means prior to the time he or she was stopped on the current charge.
How Could a Hearing Help?
If you receive a citation for driving while suspended, you may be tempted to just plead guilty and just mail in the fine. However, the fines can often be reduced if you go to court. Many judges will reduce your fine if you get your license reinstated and get insurance. If you need more time, the judge will sometimes give you time to do this. Even if you want to plead guilty, you may want to request a trial date. This will give you more time to get your license reinstated. Sometimes the police officer will ask the judge to reduce your fine or even dismiss your charges if they see proof you are getting your license back.
Legal editor: The Hon. Steve Todd, February 2009;
Updated October 2011 by Ben Eder