Politics & Government

SC DMV targets poor people with license suspensions, lawsuit alleges

Motorists visit a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Columbia in February.
Motorists visit a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Columbia in February. AP

A team of law firms and civil rights advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles challenging the state’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of those unable to pay outstanding traffic tickets.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Seattle-based Terrell Marshall Law Group, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center claim the practice disproportionately punishes the poor and violates citizens’ constitutional rights to due process.

“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, the ACLU’s deputy director of its Racial Justice Program, in a statement.

“Taking driver’s license’s away from people who are struggling financially drives them deeper into poverty, unemployment, debt and entanglement with the legal system,” Choudhury added.

DMV Director Kevin Shwedo, and Chief Judge of the South Carolina Administrative Law Court Ralph Anderson were also named defendants in the lawsuit.

A spokesperson with Motor Vehicles said Thursday the agency would not comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning in a Charleston federal court, is being brought on behalf of Linquista White, Emily Bellamy and Janice Carter, three South Carolina women who had their licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay tickets, according to the lawsuit.

As a result, all three women “continue to live in financial hardship, unable to secure better paying jobs and facing impossible choices to pursue their livelihoods, care for themselves and their families, and meaningfully participate in civic life,” according to the lawsuit.

“I need to drive to get to work, take my daughter to school and support my family,” White, a single mother who lives in North Charleston, said in a statement. “I sacrificed my family’s needs to get my driver’s license back when it was suspended for a ticket I could not pay. Now, it is going to happen again.”

According to the lawsuit, White, Bellamy and Carter are not alone in their struggles: more than 190,000 South Carolina residents had suspended driver’s licenses because they had unpaid traffic fines, the complaint says.

The complaint says the DMV also violated residents’ rights by automatically suspending licenses without holding hearings or taking into account whether a person is able to pay. Additionally, lawyers claim that the only way residents can get their licenses reinstated is by paying the traffic fines, court fees and a $100 reinstatement fee for each failure to pay suspension on the license in full.

The group is asking a judge to call the DMV’s suspension practice unconstitutional and to issue an injunction stopping the department from suspending other licenses without giving notice to drivers. Additionally, they asked that the injunction require the department to hold “pre-deprivation hearings” to find out whether a resident has the ability to pay the tickets.

Lawyers also asked that all license suspensions that are already in place be lifted and that the court strike down any reinstatement fees.

“This practice is another example of why it is expensive to be poor,” said Sue Berkowitz, the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Imposing extra DMV penalties on someone just because they have limited resources drives people deeper into poverty and is bad public policy.”

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.