The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is challenging Alabama’s practice of suspending drivers licenses of individuals who fail to pay traffic tickets, arguing it violates the Fourteenth Amendment by “punishing persons simply because they are poor.”
The SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) last Monday in which it claims roughly 23,000 Alabamians are without a valid divers license because they’ve been unable to pay traffic tickets.
“A suspended driver’s license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty,” said Micah West, SPLC senior staff attorney. “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 lawsuit describes how, under an existing rule of criminal procedure, Alabama courts routinely suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets without prior notice, an inquiry into an individual’s ability to pay, or an express finding that nonpayment was willful, as required by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses to the U.S. Constitution. The ALEA carries out these suspensions and does not reinstate driver’s licenses until the individual has paid all outstanding fines and costs to the court.
The SPLC filed the suit on behalf of three Alabama residents who had their licenses suspended. They seek a preliminary injunction to halt the practice while the case is before the court.
Earlier this year, SPLC filed a lawsuit challenging similar practices in North Carolina and reached an agreement with the Mississippi last year that will result in the state lifting failure to pay suspensions for over 100,000 people. Lawsuits have also been filed challenging the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment in Tennessee, Michigan, California and Virginia.