Starting in October of 2023, the District of Columbia will stop denying residents the ability to renew their driver’s license if they have outstanding debt to the city, including unpaid parking or traffic fines and fees. The issue in this case was whether, despite the upcoming change, present injunctive relief was warranted to stop an ongoing violation of drivers’ constitutional rights before the new law takes effect.
Yes, despite the forthcoming legislative change, plaintiffs have shown that a preliminary injunction is necessary to protect them from a present and ongoing violation of their due process rights.
At the time of litigation, D.C.’s “Clean Hands Law,” disqualified applicants from obtaining or renewing a driver’s license if they owe more than $100 in parking, traffic, or other fines and fees to the District. In 2022, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to amend the law, repealing the non-renewal provision and allowing District residents to renew their licenses regardless of whether they owe the city money. This legislative change however, would not take effect until October 2023, at the earliest.
The Plaintiffs in this case were five D.C. residents who, at the time of filing, were barred from license renewal under the Clean Hands Law as a result of unpaid parking and traffic tickets that they could not afford to pay. They faced the daily practical life consequences of not being able to drive legally–difficulty maintaining employment, caring for family members, accessing healthcare, among others. Plaintiffs petitioned the court to preliminarily enjoin the enforcement of the Clean Hands Law–despite the amendment set to take effect in late 2023–based on its alleged present violation of their various Fifth Amendment rights.
The Court found that the plaintiffs demonstrated the need for a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the Clean Hands Law preventing driver’s license renewals based on unpaid debt to the city, even though a new law doing the same was slated to take effect in just ten months time. Specifically, the court found that plaintiffs made a sufficient showing of the four factors required to grant a preliminary injunction: (1) likelihood of success on the merits; (2) likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (3) a balance of equities that tips in plaintiff’s favor; and (4) that the injunction is in the public interest.
The court found that the plaintiffs would likely prevail on their claims that the District was in violation of their procedural due process because, under the existing procedures, the District deprived residents of a property interest (license renewal) without the opportunity to be heard, a likely violation of the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause. The court rejected Defendants’ arguments that by denying renewals, rather than revoking existing licenses, they were not taking away property rights, since those rights had already expired. Instead, the court found that there is a viable argument that licensees have a legitimate claim of entitlement in renewal of a driver’s license, sufficient to make renewal a property interest in and of itself. Noting that the DMV has wide discretion on who to qualify as a driver, it also found that “[p]er the text of the D.C. Code itself, and as confirmed by the D.C. Court of Appeals, the government can only impose additional conditions on driver’s license renewals that further public safety.”
Finding that there was a likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of relief–the court pointed to two sufficient injuries caused by the the Clean Hands Law as it stood: first, a constitutional violation (demonstrated in element one) which was irreparable harm per se, and second, the ongoing harm to the daily life of residents, which is “great, actual and imminent.”
Finally, the court noted that the balance of equities and the public interest elements were met because, as the unamended law stood, there was an ongoing constitutional violation against residents, no benefit to public safety, and a disproportionate impact on the lives of Black residents thus exacerbating racial disparities within the District.
A link to the court’s memorandum opinion can be found here.
Parham v. D.C.
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
December 27, 2022
Civil Action No. 22-2481 (CKK)