Dawn Hunter is Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region Office and a volunteer attorney for CLP’s Amendment 4 Project and other clinics. Dawn recently wrote a post for the Network for Public Health Law blog...Learn more
Almost 2 million Floridians have suspended driver’s licenses. In Pinellas County, in 2018, there were 31,731 “failure-to-pay” suspension notices, which is 4.09% of the 775,470 licensed drivers in the county. These were not necessarily dangerous drivers, they are people who cannot afford to pay the fines and fees imposed by the courts.
If you are unable to pay court costs, even with non-driving related matters, your license gets suspended. The choice becomes do not drive and potentially lose your job, get evicted, etc. or “drive dirty” (drive without a license) and risk criminal charges, more fines and fees, etc. The inability to pay the court costs and fines can start an avalanche of financial and legal trouble.
It’s easy enough to be dismissive of the predicament of the almost 2 million Floridians with suspended driver’s licenses. They should just not violate traffic and other laws, right? Step back and look at the big picture, it’s more complicated. The Fines & Fees Justice Center (FFJC) examined Florida’s “license-for-payment scheme” in its December 2019 report Driving on Empty: Florida’s Costly Driver’s License Suspension Practices. In this report, FFJC examines, in detail, the increase of types and amounts of fines and fees and how they have been relied on to fund the clerks across Florida. It also looks at how the driver’s license suspension and reinstatement process varies “widely” from county to county. It found that driver’s license suspensions disproportionately harm people of color.
Benjamin Stevenson, Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), points out another issue with Florida’s current suspension scheme: “Recognizing the necessity of driving in a modern society, Florida gives dangerous drivers a second chance and invites them to apply for a hardship license. Yet, the DMV forbids insolvent drivers who pose little highway safety concerns from also continuing to drive. This makes no sense.”
What’s the solution? The FFJC report offers the following:
CONCLUSION: FLORIDA MUST
END DEBT-BASED LICENSE
Florida’s current driver’s license suspension
methods are counterproductive, costly, and
further marginalize vulnerable communities. The
personal stories included in this report show that
each of the 1.1 million suspensions issued yearly
in the state are causing significant personal and
economic harms. And all Floridians pay the cost
of citing, arresting, and even imprisoning those
who drive with a suspended license, as well as
the loss of productivity and economic vitality in
the Florida economy.
Florida must reform its driver’s license
suspension policies to prevent the state from
punishing poor people simply for being poor.
Most importantly, the state must eliminate
automatic driver’s license suspensions
for nonpayment. But even if driver license
suspension policy was completely reformed in
Florida, the underlying structure of justice taxes
for government services would remain. That, too,
needs to change. 2
Community Law Program (CLP) partners with FFJC and the ACLU to help our Lawyers for Young Adults (LFYA) project clients address fines and fees that lead to driver’s license suspension. The LFYA project helps young adults, 18-24, who have aged out of foster care, with civil legal issues.
One young woman had $3,895.00 in legal financial obligations from a 2nd-degree misdemeanor she got when she was 19 years old. She was sentenced to 6 months probation and ordered to pay the full amount. When she was unable to do so, the money owed was converted to a civil lien and she was put on a payment plan of $10 per month. Due to her former partner’s abuse and relocating, she was not able to make the payments. Her driver’s license was suspended and the debt sent to collection, increasing the amount owed. She recently tried to get back on a payment plan and was told no. ACLU Attorney Benjamin Stevenson and CLP sent a request to the Clerk’s general counsel for a reasonable payment plan of $10/month and it was accepted. The Clerk’s office brought the debt back from collections and set up the payment plan. This young woman had been trying to address the debt and get her driver’s license reinstated on her own for several months. The free legal assistance provided by CLP and the ACLU paved the way for the client to get her license back.
If you’d like to help with CLP’s LFYA project or with any of our free legal advice clinics, call 727-582-7480.
1 The Fines & Fees Justice Center (2019) https://finesandfeesjusticecenter.org/articles/driving-on-empty-florida-drivers-license-suspension-fines-fees/
2 The Fines & Fees Justice Center (2019) https://finesandfeesjusticecenter.org/articles/driving-on-empty-florida-drivers-license-suspension-fines-fees/
Should tenants have the right to court appointed counsel in eviction cases? Some jurisdictions across the country say yes. New York City, San Francisco, and Cleveland, among others, enacted legislation to provide indigent tenants with attorneys in these cases. The Voices for Civil Justice compiles news articles about this (and other) topic on their website at https://voicesforciviljustice.org/pub/27814/is-tenants-right-to-counsel-on-its-way-to-becoming-standard-practice/. More cities are examining this option and momentum may be building.
In Florida, we have the right to court appointed counsel in most criminal cases. As for civil matters, the right to counsel exists for parents in dependency, involuntary commitments, and a limited number of other cases. Justice Black wrote of the government “machinery used to try defendants accused of crime” in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), a landmark case on right to counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases. He also emphasized that:
From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.
Of course, there is a distinction between the state action of prosecuting someone in a criminal case or removing a child from parents and a private eviction cause of action. Right? What if the landlord is a public housing agency? What if large private, corporate landlords organize to lobby elected officials regarding landlord/tenant law? What if the landlord is an individual that supplements their modest retirement income by renting out half of the duplex in which they also live?
Should we examine the machinery of Chapter 83? Do we have procedural and substantive safeguards for all parties in place in eviction actions? Could the right to counsel help with the housing crisis? Help families avoid poverty? Do we try to make the “game” more fair by adding more skilled players? Or do we look at the underlying rules and address any inequities? Both? Of course we know that eviction is not a game. It’s a process that has life altering consequences, often for those that have little to no safety net.
Big questions for the first Monday of 2020.
Community Law Program’s housing clinic is the first and third Friday of each month. If you’re a Pinellas County resident with housing questions call 727-582-7480 to complete an intake. If you’re an attorney that wants to volunteer, call the same to sign up for one of our advice clinics or to provide direct representation to a member of your community.
A 17 year old child in foster care is provided food by foster parents, group homes, or other placements. That same child turns 18, they are now considered an adult and they are responsible for everything – food, shelter, clothing...Learn more
Community Law Program, along with other community members and organizations, advocated for the Tenants Bill of Rights passed by the City Council on 11/7/19.
Staff Attorney, Patrick Hogan, elaborates:
“St. Petersburg City Council passes Tenant Bill of Rights. New ordinance would be effective February 8, 2020.
A new ordinance would make it unlawful for a landlord to assess a late fee against a tenant without first providing written notice to the tenant(s), against whom the late fee is assessed, for each late fee assessed. Any such written notice shall be separate from any notice requirements provided for in a tenant’s rental agreement and shall be required each time a new late fee is assessed. Only one notice shall be required if the same late fee continues to accrue after delivery of the notice.
Though reasonable late fees may be an important aspect of rental agreements, the City Council deemed it essential that tenants understand and know when they incur these fees as the imposition of late fees may also impact when a Tenant may be evicted.
For purposes of the new ordinance only, discriminatory classifications would be expanded to include age, marital status, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, gender identity or expression, or veteran or service member status.”