ACLU Settles Suit Over DMV Driver License Suspensions For Incidents Occurring On "00/00/0000"

September 24, 2010 12:00 am

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Rhode Island ACLU
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The Rhode Island ACLU today announced the favorable settlement of its federal lawsuit against the Division of Motor Vehicles for advising thousands of motorists earlier this year that their license and registration would be suspended due to alleged unpaid fines that sometimes went back decades. The lawsuit called the DMV notices “facially unconstitutional,” as they gave recipients no information about the nature of the alleged offense leading to the suspension, the penalty for the offense, or even the date that the offense purportedly took place.

Key aspects of the settlement agreement in the case, which had been filed on behalf of Warwick resident Gerald Carbone by RI ACLU volunteer attorney James E. Kelleher, include:

  • A proviso that all future license suspension notices will contain specific language about the driver’s right to a hearing to contest the suspension, as well as information about the hearing procedures.
  • Upon receipt of a request for a hearing to contest a license suspension, the DMV agrees to immediately stay the suspension until a decision is rendered.
  • The DMV agrees to pay $12,300 in attorney’s fees and costs to ACLU attorney Kelleher.

In addition, the consent agreement acknowledges that a revised notice was sent out in April, after the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed, to Carbone and more than 1,500 other residents who received similar notices, offering them more information about their suspension, an opportunity for a hearing, and a stay of any suspension in the interim. In reaching all these terms, the settlement agreement also provides that the state does not admit any liability.

As for Carbone’s case which started this all, when he appealed his case before the Traffic Tribunal earlier this summer, the judge summarily threw out the charge. Carbone’s “notice of action” from the DMV had told him that his license would be suspended in a week. In giving a reason for the suspension, the notice unhelpfully advised him that the “date of incident” was “00/00/0000,” that the reason for the suspension was that he was “not entitled to lic. issue,” and that the fee he owed was “$0.00.” In addition to arguing that the notices themselves violated basic principles of due process, the ACLU lawsuit had contested the DMV’s efforts to suspend the alleged violator’s license first and provide a hearing only at some indefinite point after suspension. The questionable suspension notices were generated when the DMV began consolidating and updating various agency computer database systems.

Attorney Kelleher said today: “This case reinforces that which our Supreme Court recognized long ago – a driver’s license is a property right protected by the Constitution. Agencies such as the DMV must be careful not to deprive motorists of that right without first giving them a meaningful opportunity to tell their side of the story.”

Plaintiff Carbone added: “This case is important to everyone who holds a driver’s license. The DMV had claimed the power to suspend a license without providing a hearing or even adequate information. Now the state has agreed to provide meaningful hearings and a detailed explanation prior to suspension. This case never was about a $70 ticket, it was about governmental abuse of authority. The DMV tried to turn the Constitution and the people of Rhode Island on our heads in order to shake a few dollars from our pockets. Fortunately the courts and the ACLU have put the people, and the Constitution, back on our feet.”

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