South Carolina driving rule allegedly criminalizes poverty

South Carolina unconstitutionally suspends the drivers’ licenses of people who haven’t paid traffic tickets without first determining if they can afford to pay, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

The lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center is part of a broader campaign to dismantle practices that effectively criminalize poverty.

Filed as a class-action in Charleston on behalf of three named drivers, it says South Carolina’s Department of Motor Vehicles suspends driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets without providing proper notice or hearings. The plaintiffs say this makes for a “wealth-based” system of enforcement that deprives people of driving privileges — and impedes their ability to work — simply because they are poor.

“None of the plaintiffs here are contesting the fact that they owe for traffic tickets,” Nusrat Choudhury, director of the ACLU racial justice program, said in a telephone interview. “They’re challenging the fact that they’re barred from driving because they can’t pay, and there’s no way for them to explain to the DMV that the reasons that they haven’t paid their tickets.”

The policy weighs more heavily on black people, the lawsuit says: Blacks represent 27% of South Carolina’s population, but 48% of all people with licenses indefinitely suspended under the practice.

The plaintiffs want the court to declare that the policy violates constitutional protections of equal protection and due process, and to order the lifting of suspensions and reinstatement of licenses for those who lost driving privileges under the policy.

Practices that effectively criminalize poverty also are being challenged in other states.

Choudury said litigation like that filed Thursday is being pursued in North Carolina. And in New Orleans, federal judges have said state criminal judges have a conflict of interest when deciding whether some defendants are able to pay fines and fees that partially fund their court’s expenses.

In Florida meanwhile, a federal judge has temporarily blocked a Republican-backed law preventing voting by felons who can’t pay all their fines and other legal debts, despite a voter-approved amendment restoring voting rights to people who have served their sentences. October’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle could pave the way for thousands of felons to regain the ability to cast ballots in the 2020 elections. Hinkle was particularly sympathetic to arguments by lawyers representing disenfranchised felons who asserted that the financial requirement was akin to a poll tax.


McGill reported from New Orleans.

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