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ACLU Sues Florida DMV for Suspending Licenses of Those Too Poor to Pay Court Costs

| September 18, 2013

Because being poor isn't enough. (Matteo Angelino)

Because being poor isn’t enough. (Matteo Angelino)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed a lawsuit challenging the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ policy of suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who have outstanding court costs without first determining whether or not a person is able to afford to pay the fees.  A copy of the lawsuit was formally served on the Highway Department Tuesday (Sept. 17).

“It is not only unfair, but it’s counterproductive to suspend a driver’s license to compel payment of the court costs when a driver clearly lacks the present ability to pay,” ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson said. “The DHSMV is indiscriminately punishing all people without first finding out if they have the means to pay. Driving has become an increasingly important part of American life and is a necessity in obtaining and maintaining many types of employment. In effect, this policy pointlessly punishes people for being poor.”

Criminal defendants who lose their cases in Florida are required to pay court costs and fees known as “legal financial obligations” (LFOs) that are unrelated to penalties associated with their sentence.  Ironically, poor defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney are assessed fees for their assigned public defenders. These fees can easily exceed $1,000.  Under Florida law, when the court clerks notify the motor vehicle department of unpaid legal obligations, the department suspends the defendant’s driver’s license without making an effort to determine whether the non-payment is intentional or due to a defendant being too poor to afford the costs.

Because Florida courts only collect roughly 7 percent of these court costs from felony defendants, it is likely that many individuals have lost their ability to drive only because they are too poor to pay the fines imposed on them. The result is that 211,159 Florida drivers have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay legal obligations as of the start of 2013.

The ACLU lawsuit states that the insufficient notice and lack of hearing to determine if a person is able to afford the fees is a violation of due process and equal protection rights. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Reginald Foster, a Broward County man who had his license suspended when he was unable to pay his legal obligations, which totaled over $5,400. Foster was paying installments toward outstanding legal obligations before the suspension, but due to economic hardship and unsteady employment, he began to miss payments. He never received notice that the department would suspend his license.

Foster is now unable to drive between his part-time job as a longshoreman and the home of his elderly parents for whom he is a caretaker – one of whom suffers from dementia; the other is recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery.


“I didn’t even know my license had been suspended until after it happened,” Foster said. “Now that it is, it’s not only harder for me to get to and from work and my parents’ place, but I’m being denied opportunities to advance in my job. There are other, better-paying positions I could take if I were able to operate a vehicle. How am I supposed to pay these fees when I’m being held back from trying to earn the money I need to pay them?”

The complaint asks the court to declare the DHSMV’s suspension of Foster’s driver’s license unconstitutional and requests an order stopping the DHSMV from suspending Foster’s license in the future for failure to pay without first giving him notice of a possible suspension, providing him with an opportunity to be heard, and determining whether or not he is able to pay the LFOs.

“This is unfortunately another way that our criminal justice system is especially harsh on those who are poor,” Stevenson said. “There are over 200,000 people in Florida who have been put in the same position as Mr. Foster because of this unfair policy, being held back from opportunities to reintegrate into our communities and grow our economy. We thank Mr. Foster for stepping forward to challenge this injustice, and in doing so, help end this policy.”

ACLU DMV Complaint

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29 Responses for “ACLU Sues Florida DMV for Suspending Licenses of Those Too Poor to Pay Court Costs”

  1. really? says:

    So they are too poor to pay for reinstatement of driving priveleges? a privelege that was abused in the first place. Where will the money come from to pay for the formal hearing? Who is going to pay the rising cost of insurance because the abusers are driving without it. Seems to me if someone can’t afford something get a second job.

  2. Joey Paparazzi says:

    just like the red light cameras taking food from families mouths.

  3. mikeylikesit says:

    This lawsuit would make sense and have merit but for one tiny detail. Driving is a privilege by state law. It is not a “right.” So, the Constitution has nothing to do with this matter.

    If you can’t pay the fine or do the time, don’t commit the crime.

    And last I heard, with a suspended drivers license, one can still get a business or work limited license to allow continued ability to commute to a job to earn a living and for other essential trips like shopping.

    • FlaglerLive says:

      mikey, contrary to a common misconception, driving is not a privilege, but a right, as recognized by Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe in a 2002 opinion for Florida’s ninth circuit in orange County. Thorpe wrote: “Although the Florida statutes use the term “driving privileges,” this does not mean that driving is a “privilege” rather than a “right.” The court recognizes that in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 US 398 (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the distinction between privilege and right is not meaningful when the benefit in question, i.e., being able to drive a car and thereby conduct normal life activities, is the same.”

  4. m&m says:

    If they’re so poor how can they afford to own and drive a vehicle???? ACLU are just intitled people who like to keep their noses in other people affairs..

    • ACLU Member says:

      By arresting people for failure to pay due to inability its called a “debtor’s prison”. Last I checked, those are illegal in the US states. Also one of the many reasons for the Boston Tea Party, ie AMerican revolution. Educate yourself and stop being so self-righteous.

  5. Mario says:

    Very happy to hear the ALCU is initiating suit against these terrible laws aimed at hurting the less fortunate.
    Legal representation is guaranteed in this country, regardless of ability to pay.
    FL needs to eliminate penalties to individuals who cannot afford to pay court costs. Legal fees should be provided at no charge.
    I hope all these drivers licenses are reinstated without further delay and the DMV are prevented from associating driving privileges with income brackets in the future.
    Thank you.

  6. Charles Gardner says:

    I’m not a big fan of ACLU but I hope they win this one big. In many cases if their drivers license is taken their all important photo ID is taken. We should try to make life a little easier for the poor not harder. DMV is a big bad bully in this one.

  7. Sherry Epley says:

    Go ACLU!!! It does seem like the leaders in my home state are, at best, oblivious to the struggles of those who live in poverty here. How in the world is anyone suppose to keep their job, so that they can pay their fines and be of benefit to themselves and our community, if their driver’s license is taken away?

    How terrible to take away the very necessities than everyone needs to be a productive member of society! I hear many, many complaints about the “TAKERS”, as the heartless members of the GOP call them. But, these kinds of unjust laws and practices are eroding the very rungs to the ladder of becoming the “MAKERS” that the GOP says everyone should be. Yes, it is easy to say everyone should “work” and “pull themselves up by their boot straps”. . . except when the actual boots are taken away by unreasonable rules.

    • Genie says:

      @ Sherry, while you make a very good point, the more important matter here is auto insurance. Ever been in an accident with an uninsured driver?

  8. Genie says:

    Is the ACLU going to pay for any damages with regard to any accidents which occur?

  9. rthomp11 says:

    While I feel sorry for Mr. Foster’s current situation with his parents and all, perhaps he should have thought about his future and his circumstances before he committed the crime that led him to this point. He was making payments on legal fees…when he found that he could no longer make those payments or payments to the court he should have called the court and talked to them. He should have made some kind of contact with them. This is just like owing money to any other entity except it’s the local government. You still owe the money. You have to pay the money or they will come after you with legal action. Only in this case they take your license which I’m sure he knew cause they told him that when he was in court. He’s just mad cause he didn’t get a letter in the mail from the court or the DMV saying his license was going to be or was suspended.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Yeah, because the government is always SO reasonable when you call them up and tell them that you can’t pay them money you owe them. Sure, calling and talking to them will help. Right.

  10. rickg says:

    Yeah these people who are without licenses can just use the excellent public transportation that we have in Florida.

  11. Nancy N. says:

    A lot of the commenters here seem to be missing the point, saying that these are dangerous drivers and uninsured drivers and such and so why shouldn’t DMV suspend their license. In fact, since these are criminal court fines, their infraction most likely has NOTHING to do with their ability to drive. The state is simply using their driver’s license as leverage against them because it’s what they have to use.

    This, of course, is completely counter-productive. Hmm, let’s see…this guy is too poor to pay his fines. I know what we’ll do to fix it! We’ll suspend his driver’s license and take away his way of getting to work so that then he’ll have the money to pay for sure!

    Just more proof our state is run by idiots.

  12. Sherry Epley says:

    OK. . . instead of automatically assuming that every struggling, poor person is some kind of mad dog criminal, just because they are without funds. . . let’s assume they are INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, as our laws require. Next, let’s assume they were a victim of mistaken identity. “Yes officer that must be the fella. . . he’s black, isn’t he?” OK, now we have the arrest of a person who’s only offense is that he is the wrong color in our still racist state.

    First, he must come up with 10% of his bail, on his Walmart salary. Oh yes, we was just fired from Walmart because he didn’t show up for work because he couldn’t make bail. Then he has no money to hire a private attorney and has to use a “public defender”. The “Public Defender” is no longer free, even to the poorest citizens. Those fees create a debt to the court system.

    The “Public Defender” proves that he is NOT the gulity party by (during the hearing) entering into evidence his time sheets from Walmart during the time the crime was committed. The fellow has DONE NOTHING WRONG! But, he lost his job, and now needs to drive to interviews to find a new one. Even though he was found innocent, no one wants to hire him because of what they see on his public record. The fees for his “Public Defender” come due. He has no job and his children are hungry. The DMV takes his driver’s license and his means of official identification away. Even if public transportation were available in Florida (NOT!), he cannot get a new job because he has no ID to be photocopied for the proper employment paper work.

    He is but one of many VICTIMS OF A SYSTEM WHICH IS SET UP FOR HIM AND HIS FAMILY TO FAIL! His only offense. . . he is poor and many people fear and hate him because he has the wrong color skin as well. Our system is criminal!

  13. Michael Wiislon says:

    I have personally been through and am going through a similar circumstance with the D.M.V. I do feel victimized by a powerful force the D.M.V. here. After not even being aware that my license was being put in extortion status I was then in a jam to pay the debts I owed as criminal court fines and I felt that it was very unfair that some of the more well off offenders were driving and back in the running only one week after receiving a similar offense. My intentions are to attempt to Vacate the civil assessments in California so I can get back to my career as a truck driver. I am thankful to the ACLU and those who see the unhumane side of this arguement being the D.M.V. being criminal. By the way I would have insurance, and I don’t believe that I should be required to have it either.

  14. satan.d.worldonfire says:

    Check out these other little things the dmv does. In less than 10 years the cost of an id not a drivers liscense has went to 25 dollors from 10. Also if you cant afford to pay a traffic fine within 3months tha hook you up with a collection agency that adds 40 percent to your ticket. What is the.purpose of this, if you dont pay your dl gets suspended. They already got you. They are just adding extra cost that someone obviosly cant affors

    • David says:

      I made a mistake 11 years ago while driving. Pages my fines, did everything the court and DMV asked of me. Had my license reinstated. 8 months later a routine traffic stop. I was arrested for driving on a suspended license. The reason, Florida DMV neglected to add a $75 fee in 2004. I never received notice that my license was suspended. The fee they forgot was actually entered into the system Sept. 24 20014. 2 days later, the routine traffic stop. The impound tow was 400+ I lost my job due to not having a license. My truck had a lean for auction after 4 days. All for $75 they never stated to me I owed. There should be a statue of limitations for the DMV. As for people who claim they can’t pay i say too bad. As for the people who did the right thing, played only to have their license suspended with out knowledge due to the counter person not doing their job properly… They still have their vehicle, job, and the DMV never considered the conciquenses. Needless to say due process was 2 months after my truck was auctioned. In which the State dropped my charge of knowingly driving on a suspended license. Sorry to beat a dead horse on an old thread but Florida DMV must change it’s negligent practices.

  15. Jay says:

    Forget about cant afford crime don’t do it….My drug trafficking fine is ,$50,000 after fees now it is $72,000….I to drive for a living and make only $30K per year….I want to and I am able to pay atleast $100.00 per month to reinstate my license….No deals are made….I am at a dead end road….Just paid $500.00 to an attorney which could of gone to the state or the collection agency as payment….Nope they want full payment….Now tell me yes, who can afford to make payments and yes I can pay a huge chunk down with a Temp D6 clearance or even, how about this, I would be happy with a hardship….Nope still suspended and taking major risks every day doing you know what…..J Someone please Help!!!!!!

  16. steven j says:

    This is a crime to the people of the state of florida but we have no rights they have been taken systematically while you slept. They are not even required to read miranda rights to citizens any longer as a society we have become cattle and we allow the state do what ever they please. Its is sad were is the country i grew up in? Gone long Gone. I am in the same boat as the rest of you being poor is the biggest crime in florida and most places in america. It wont change because as a people we are scared to open our mouths because if you do they will punish you the power is the people with money. like the ones on this site saying driving a privladge and its your fault you should have known better. These are the cowards who live with blinders and i hope one day they fall on hard times then they will cry foul. I say go count your money because thats what it is now right we dont care for each other unless it happens to them and my friend it will . So get back to herd and do as they ask it will all be ok…. Remeber Rome????????????????????

  17. confidential says:

    I totally agree with ACLU!

  18. jason r clifton says:

    just owning a car to get to the store get you hit with a “getting to the store tax”

  19. monkeyvibes says:

    “Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law” …….operation of a motor vehicle or any other form of currently used common transportation is not a privilege but is in fact a constitutional right that has been upheld once again by the US supreme court july 2015. Its a right to have freedom of travel unrestricted and uninterrupted by police or other governing bodies if there is no threat to other travelers or their safety. The modern automobile is in fact private property and not subject to licensing or registration under constitutional law. In fact if you are arrested and your vehicle impounded for driving unlicensed the arresting officer is committing multiple felonies under federal law. It isnt open for interpretation by anyone as its clearly stated without amendment that free citizens have the right to free travel using any form common tomthe day of travel . Also public roads and highways belong to the free citizens and their travel upon them using common forms of travel of the day will not require permitting by any legislative or governing branch of city, state or federal government any legislature imposing the requirement of permitting in any form is a illegal act violating the us constitution .

    These thing exist because people allow them to by ignorantly waiving their constitutional rights in local courts. Ive been charged 3 times and beat it every time in no time because the constitution is the supreme law of the land. And everytime i was reimbursed tow and storage fees by the city or county where i was cited . A drivers license is only legally required if using public roads or highways for commerce. Educate yourselves. Oh btw im in California and all three times were here too ! Dont argue just educate yourself !

  20. monkeyvibes says:

    Your rights are only denied if you ignorantly wave them . Educate yourselves and dont listen to others who listened to others . The government is bound and restricted by far more laws then we the people and until we the people stop waiving our rights there will be abuses . Every citizen has a voice and the freedom of speech and the right to do process. Exercise your rights by educating yourself about those rights . Its the number 1 problem we have and the largest contributing factor to our nations citizens deterioration of freedoms and prosperity !

  21. Rex says:

    This is an outrage! If you aren’t affluent, don’t break the law! That is a privilege reserved for the rich. If you want to go 64 in a 55 zone, then be born to a family with money! Duh. I’m suck and tired of people expecting handouts. Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Poor people are a blight on our society. So what they can’t make it to work, we can clean our own toilets! We can flip our own burgers! If poor people want to ignore the law with the same impunity as the rich, then they should lose their “privilege” to drive.

    Hey, what’s the best way to gain control of a population?

    De-fund mass transit, rip out the rail, instead pave roads, and make it so that one needs to drive to live. Make it so that one needs to drive to literally support one’s family.

    Then, when you set everything up so that the only way to access it is by car, when you get everyone car-dependent … define driving as a “privilege”. This way, the government literally has top give people permission to do anything, and they can withdraw that permission at-will. It seems like it’s just driving, but the government will actually control the persons means of production, income, access to medical care, pretty much everything.

    The only problem with this scheme is getting the citizens to accept it.

    Do you think they will?

    Personally, I don’t. I mean, people aren’t stupid. They’ll see that one coming from a mile away.

    On second thought, never mind. It’ll never work.

  22. daniel nunez says:

    i see all these complaints,but what are going to do about it?what good is to complain and we dont anything about it?until we come together to fight goverment we will always lose.

  23. Frank's Bail says:

    This is just a small part of the conspiracy started in 1998 by then candidate Jed Bush. His plan was to make life too expensive for the poor to survive in Florida in the hopes they would move out of state.
    Pay to Play took over almost everypart of life here. Fees, fines, taxes, s and teier penalties all made to be impossible for a poor person to keep up.
    The goal then was to create a minimum threshold of earnings per person at $30,000 per individua. anything less would become very hard.

  24. Nate ash says:

    I lost my licenses due to court cost 08,i did jail time for my crime as well,when i got out of jail i was on probation in 09 n was paying my fines just to violate n go back to prison,fl did not take that into account and sent my court cost fees to a collection agency,they would not take my payment at the court house at all.thus 10 yrs later still no licenses,cant get a job due to not having a licence,have been homeless for past 8 yrs,and my crimes had nothing to do with driving,go figure that.i hope ucla wins n fl drops all this bs sespending licences for not having the ability to pay court cost.when u r in prison u can’t pay for sqwaute n loose everything any ways,including means of getting around to make $ to pay their outrageous court costs

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