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We’re Suing South Carolina For Driving People Into Poverty

Emily Bellamy with her children
In South Carolina people who can’t pay traffic tickets are trapped in a cycle of lost jobs and opportunities, poverty, and debt. We're suing to fix that.
Emily Bellamy with her children
Nusrat Choudhury,
Former Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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November 14, 2019

Emily Bellamy is a single mother living in South Carolina earning low wages as a daycare worker. Emily strives for a better life for her young children and, in the past, has been able to earn more money cleaning vacation condominiums or working as a home health aide for the elderly. But Emily no longer has access to those opportunities because her driver’s license is suspended for unpaid traffic tickets that she cannot afford to pay.

We’ve created an interactive webpage that shows how living with a suspended driver’s license severely limits Emily’s ability to earn money and care for her family.  It’s astonishing.

Without a driver’s license, Emily is not only barred from better-paying work, she often must pay for rides to work and for her daughter to get to school. This makes it even harder for her to pay outstanding tickets and begin the process of getting her license back.

Emily is trapped in South Carolina’s wealth-based driver’s license suspension system. As of May 2019, the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles had suspended the driver’s licenses of more than 190,000 people for failure to pay traffic tickets — without first determining if they were able to pay. The ACLU and our partners filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Emily, Janice Carter, and Linquista White — Black women who were denied their constitutional right to protection from punishment for being unable to pay fines and fees. 

South Carolina has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with one in six residents living in poverty. Driving is crucial to life in the state, and nine out of ten people rely on a driving to get to work. In 2011, a report prepared for the South Carolina Department of Transportation acknowledged that public transportation networks do not meet half of the state’s needs. Like the plaintiffs in our lawsuit, people in South Carolina must rely on their driver’s licenses to get to work, take their kids to school, access health care, and care for their families.

Janice, an Air Force veteran, explains in a video the hardship of having a driver’s license suspended for unpaid traffic tickets. Janice would like to accept a higher-paying job as a case manager, but the position requires a license and travel to clients spread across three counties spanning more than forty miles. Without a driver’s license, it’s out of the question. Our interactive page also shows how Janice struggles to get to work and to run errands over the course of a day without a driver’s license.

The South Carolina DMV doesn’t provide a hearing or proper notice of how to avoid suspension when a person can’t pay — and it doesn’t determine whether or not people have the money to pay. This results in a system of wealth-based suspensions that only end when a person pays all traffic fines, as well as DMV fees charged for reinstating a suspended license. This means impoverished people are unable to drive unless they divert money from rent, utilities, health care, and other necessities to get their licenses back.  

To make matters worse, neither the DMV nor the South Carolina Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings — the state agency with the power to review suspensions — provides an opportunity for South Carolinians to explain that their driver’s licenses should not be suspended because of inability to pay.

The result is a racially-skewed legal system that defies common sense. People who can pay a traffic ticket move on with their lives, but people who can’t pay are trapped in a cycle of lost jobs and opportunities, poverty, and debt. Paradoxically, this makes it even more difficult for people to pay traffic tickets. Black people in South Carolina suffer from poverty at a rate more than double that of white people. As a result, Black South Carolinians, including Emily and Janice, make up 27 percent of the state’s population, but 48 percent of those with driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the Fourteenth Amendment promise of due process and equal protection of the law protects us from state punishment based solely on inability to pay. Organizations across the ideological spectrum, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, Koch Industries, the American Bar Association, and more than one hundred groups involved in the Free-to-Drive Campaign, agree that driver’s license suspensions should be reserved to keep unsafe drivers off the road — not to collect debt. In recent years, California, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Virginia, Texas, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to tackle the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid debt. 

We all want a legal system that is fair and provides equal treatment of rich and poor. It is past time for South Carolina to end wealth-based driver’s license suspensions once and for all.

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