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SPLC and partners sue South Carolina DMV for suspending driver’s licenses of people who cannot afford traffic fines

During a traffic stop, Janice Carter learned for the first time that her license had been suspended for unpaid traffic tickets.

To get her license back, the North Charleston resident would have to pay more than $1,600 that she didn’t have. To get a hearing where she could explain why she couldn’t pay the $1,600, she would have to pay an additional $800 in filing fees that she could not afford.

Now, due to limited bus service in her area, she often can’t get to her part-time job, her doctor’s office, the store or church without the help of friends or a car service. An Air Force veteran, she cannot take a well-paying job as a case manager because it requires her to have a driver’s license. And she cannot drive to visit her son in the Navy.

“To not be able to drive legally, I feel like a prisoner in my own city,” she said. “I went from being the breadwinner in my household to now having to rely on family and friends for transportation, to pay my bills. Some days I don’t even have enough money for an Uber or a bus. So if I have to go to church or work, sometimes I have to decide whether I’m going to even go or not because of the lack of funds.”

Carter is one of the more than 190,000 South Carolinians who currently have suspended driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets. For tens of thousands of people like Carter, paying a traffic ticket is a financial hardship. It can literally mean choosing between using limited financial resources to pay off outstanding fines and costs to be able to drive legally, or paying for rent, utilities, food, childcare and other necessities.

Carter is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that the SPLC and its partners filed today, challenging the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles’ (DMV’s) policy of automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are unable to pay traffic tickets.

The lawsuit argues that people living with an indefinite driver’s license suspension under South Carolina’s wealth-based system are robbed of a crucial means of self-sufficiency and are pushed deeper into poverty.

The complaint, White, et al. v. Shwedo et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It seeks to end the DMV’s indefinite suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic fines and fees without proper notice or a hearing. The current practice bars nearly 200,000 people from driving.

The lawsuit further seeks to lift the suspensions of driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets imposed under this system. The complaint also seeks to eliminate DMV reinstatement fees, and fees charged for hearings to dispute suspensions, which block people from explaining to the DMV why they cannot pay.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit with its partners the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of South Carolina, Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC, and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

“The right to drive should not be dependent on a person’s ability to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and fees,” said Emily Early, staff attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “Suspending a driver’s license presents a choice – either miss work, a doctor’s appointment, or going to the grocery store or drive on a suspended license and risk further penalties and jail time. The consequences of losing a driver’s license are devastating for low-income families.”

Punished for being poor

In South Carolina, one in six people live in poverty and nine of out 10 people rely on driving to get to work. The DMV’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets prevents people from finding and keeping work, taking their children to and from school, accessing health care, purchasing groceries and other necessities, and traveling to places of worship.

Due to longstanding racial disparities in poverty and wealth, black South Carolinians are disproportionately harmed by the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic fines and fees.

“The South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles is running a wealth-based driver’s license suspension system that punishes people who cannot afford traffic tickets far more harshly than those who can, in violation of basic constitutional rights to fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor in the legal system,” said Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, deputy director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Taking driver’s licenses away from people who are struggling financially drives them deeper into poverty, unemployment, debt, and entanglement with the legal system. We are suing to end this counterproductive and illegal practice.”

Linquista White, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, needs to drive in order to get to work, take her daughter to school, and support her family.

“I sacrificed my family’s needs to get my driver’s license back when it was suspended for a ticket I could not pay,” White said. “Now it is going to happen again. No one should be punished with a driver’s license suspension just because they cannot afford to pay a traffic ticket.”

Plaintiff Emily Bellamy, a single mother and the primary caregiver for four young children, works full-time in a children’s daycare facility. But she does not earn enough to meet her family’s needs, including rent, childcare, groceries, utilities, phone service, household supplies, personal care/hygiene needs, milk products for her youngest son, transportation and medicine.

Bellamy’s driver’s license is indefinitely suspended because she cannot afford to pay over $700 in traffic fines and fees, and at least $1,305 in reinstatement fees to the DMV. Because her driver’s license is suspended, she is also unable to secure higher-paid work in hotel housekeeping or as a home health aide. 

Additionally, because she is not able to drive legally, she cannot earn more money by taking on additional part-time work to cover her family’s expenses. If she had a valid driver’s license, she could drive on weekends to work in housekeeping. That work, however, requires the ability to drive between various job sites and to transport heavy linens, cleaning products and rags between the sites. 

Also, because she does not have a valid driver’s license, she is unable to visit and help her mother, who has HIV and lives about 21 miles away. What’s more, Bellamy is unable to take her children to the doctor or to extracurricular activities. Unable to afford car service or taxi rides, she is forced to depend on rides from friends or family members, whenever they are available.

‘A driver’s license is a basic necessity’

The South Carolina lawsuit is the latest challenge the SPLC has made against states across the South that have suspended the driver’s licenses of people who cannot afford to pay traffic fines.

In 2017, the SPLC reached a settlement with Mississippi in which the state agreed to reinstate more than 100,000 driver’s licenses for non-payment of traffic tickets, and to stop suspending licenses for failure to pay fines.

In November 2018, the SPLC sued Alabama for unlawfully suspending thousands of driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets without taking into account a person’s ability to pay.

In May 2018, the SPLC sued the North Carolina DMV for revoking the licenses of hundreds of thousands of people who could not afford to pay traffic tickets. The ACLU, the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice also joined the SPLC in filing the lawsuit.

In South Carolina, when the DMV receives a report that a state resident or driver’s license holder has not paid a traffic ticket, it automatically suspends that person’s driver’s license without providing proper notice or a hearing to ensure that people who cannot pay will not lose their licenses.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes clear, however, that the 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the law require consideration of a person’s ability to pay before they are punished for nonpayment of a court fine, the lawsuit states.

“In a rural state like South Carolina, a driver’s license is a basic necessity,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “The denial of driver’s licenses to more than one hundred thousand people simply because of their lack of financial resources hurts individuals, their families, businesses, and entire communities.”

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