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Lawsuit says poor shouldn’t lose licenses over traffic fines

November 20, 2018

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal lawsuit is challenging Alabama’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay traffic tickets, arguing it violates the Fourteenth Amendment by “punishing persons simply because they are poor.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on Monday in Montgomery federal court on behalf of three Alabama residents who had their licenses suspended. The lawsuit states that nearly 23,000 Alabamians have suspended licenses because of the nonpayment of tickets.

“A suspended driver’s license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty,” said Micah West, a senior staff attorney with the center. “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 Alabama Law Enforcement Agency did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued the loss of a driver’s licenses can have “devastating consequences” for a person’s ability to earn a living and “meet basic human needs” in a state with limited public transportation options.

The Southern Poverty Law Center released statements from plaintiffs in the case describing fees they couldn’t pay and the impact of not having a license.

Sharon Motley said her Alabama driver’s license was suspended when she couldn’t pay $310 in traffic tickets and court costs. Lakendra Cook lost her license for $456 in unpaid fines.

Motley said she couldn’t pay the tickets and court costs because she was unemployed. Not having a license makes it more difficult to find a job, Motley said.

Cook works the night shift at a warehouse located 8 miles (12 kilometers) from her home to provide for her 10-year-old son and elderly grandmother. She said sometimes she has no choice but to drive on a suspended license in order to get to work and keep her job, take her son to school and go to their medical appointments. She said her “heart starts pounding” when she sees a police officer.

“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,” Cook said.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare Alabama’s law for suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment unconstitutional and issue an order blocking the state law enforcement agency from suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment under the law. It also asks the court to require the agency to reinstate any driver’s license previously suspended solely for nonpayment.

Last year Mississippi agreed to stop suspending people’s driver’s licenses purely because they hadn’t paid court fines and fees. Licenses in Mississippi continue to be suspended for people who don’t respond to a citation or if a judge holds someone in contempt for failing to pay fines.

Similar litigation has been filed in North Carolina and several other states.

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