Submitted from the Southern Poverty Law Center
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama law that allows the state to suspend a person’s driver’s license for unpaid traffic tickets without notice and any consideration for their ability to pay is unconstitutional and harms thousands of low-income families across the state, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“A suspended driver’s license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty,” said Micah West, SPLC senior staff attorney. “The U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from suspending a person’s driver’s license without first determining their ability to pay. Through this lawsuit, we hope to end this illegal practice in Alabama.”
The lawsuit describes how, under an existing rule of criminal procedure, Alabama courts routinely suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets without prior notice, an inquiry into an individual’s ability to pay, or an express finding that nonpayment was willful, as required by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses to the U.S. Constitution. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) carries out these suspensions and refuses to reinstate driver’s licenses until the individual has paid all outstanding fines and costs to the court.
The licenses of roughly 23,000 Alabama residents are currently suspended for nonpayment under the rule.
Alabamians impacted by this punitive practice are stripped of their ability to support themselves and their families, as drivers’ licenses are crucial to securing and maintaining employment, driving children to school, and meeting basic needs. The SPLC seeks a preliminary injunction to halt the practice while the case is before the court.
In 2013, Plaintiff Sharon Motley was ordered by the Montgomery County District Court to pay $310 for a traffic ticket and court costs even though she was unemployed at the time. When she failed to pay, ALEA suspended her driver’s license and neither the court nor ALEA asked about her ability to pay prior to suspending her driver’s license. Her driver’s license remains suspended today.
“I have been struggling financially for many years,” Motley said. “When my license was suspended in 2013 because I couldn’t afford to pay a traffic ticket, I was devastated. I completely lost the ability to legally drive and secure a well-paying job that would allow me to pay my bills and the traffic ticket. I want to get to a better place financially so that I can afford to pay the traffic ticket but I can’t do that without a valid driver’s license.”
Individuals with a suspended driver’s license often risk driving to maintain their livelihood and support their families, the lawsuit states. If stopped by police, they could face additional penalties including up to six months in prison and hundreds of dollars in court costs.
Plaintiff Lakendra Cook’s license was suspended earlier this year when she couldn’t afford to pay two traffic tickets totaling $456 in fines and court costs. Cook works the night shift at a warehouse located eight miles from her home and barely earns enough money to pay her bills and put food on the table for her 10-year-old son and elderly grandmother. Sometimes she has no choice but to drive on a suspended license in order to get to work; take her son to school; and travel to their doctor’s appointments.
“Whenever I see a police officer my heart starts pounding and I start calculating in my head whether I will be able to afford bail if I am arrested for driving on a suspended license,” Cook said. “Driving on a suspended license makes me feel like I am a criminal even though my life largely consists of going to work and caring for my family. It is my hope that this lawsuit will result in a clearer path for me and others in a similar situation, to get our driver’s license back. No one should have their license suspended because they don’t have enough money to pay traffic tickets.”
The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare Alabama’s law for suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment unconstitutional and issue an order blocking ALEA from suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment under the law. It also asks the court to require ALEA to reinstate any driver’s license previously suspended solely for nonpayment.
Earlier this year, SPLC filed a lawsuit challenging similar practices in North Carolina and reached an agreement with the Mississippi last year that will result in the state lifting failure to pay suspensions for over 100,000 people. Lawsuits have also been filed challenging the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment in Tennessee, Michigan, California and Virginia.
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