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.”