South Carolina Taken to Court Over Automatic License Suspensions

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – A class of South Carolina motorists backed by civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit claiming state officials effectively criminalize poverty by automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay outstanding traffic tickets or fines.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center filed the complaint against officials with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles in hopes of ending the practice that they claim punishes people simply for not having enough money. The Terrell Marshall Law Group also signed onto the lawsuit.

The three named plaintiffs in the class action – Linquista White, Emily Bellamy and Janice Carter – claim the state suspends licenses without providing proper notice or a hearing to ensure that people who cannot pay will not lose their ability to lawfully drive.

They say the practice disproportionately punishes black and poor people, especially because they must pay a $100 reinstatement fee in addition to the outstanding fines before being allowed to drive again.

According to the complaint, more than 190,000 South Carolina residents have suspended driver’s licenses due to unpaid traffic fines.

“In a rural state like South Carolina, a driver’s license is a basic necessity,” Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in a statement. “The denial of driver’s licenses to more than one hundred thousand people simply because of their lack of financial resources hurts individuals, their families, businesses, and entire communities.”

More than 790,000, or one in six people, live below the poverty line in South Carolina and nine of out 10 people rely on driving to get to work, according to the lawsuit

“For those who can afford to pay, traffic fines and fees are an inconvenience, but can be satisfied. For those who cannot afford to pay, traffic fines and fees result in the absolute loss of a driver’s license, which causes more severe economic and personal consequences,” the complaint states.

According to the South Carolina Department of Transportation, public transportation ridership in the state is expected to grow to about 19 million passengers by 2040. However, rural areas do not have public transit systems.

One of the plaintiffs, Bellamy, is a single mother of four who is unable to pay fines and fees for four traffic tickets or reinstatement fees. She was fired from her initial job after her license was revoked. She says she can not secure higher-paid work in hotel housekeeping or as a home health aide because she can’t afford to regain her license.

According to the complaint, the court did not inform Bellamy that she was ordered to pay about $76 for speeding, which occurred on her way to her daughter’s birthday party, until she was later involved in a car collision.

The complaint alleges that a series of failures of the court and the DMV to communicate with Bellamy caused her to lose her car, her job and any trace of income stability.

The named defendants are Kevin Shwedo, executive director of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and Ralph Anderson III, who is chief judge of the South Carolina Administrative Law Court and director of the Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings.

A DMV spokesperson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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