Records provided by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) indicate that more than 190,000 individuals had their driver’s licenses suspended for the nonpayment of traffic fines and fees as of May 31, 2019.
The DMV automatically and indefinitely suspends driver’s licenses whenever it receives a report from a court that an individual has not paid monetary penalties for traffic violations, including fines, fees, surcharges, court costs, and assessments. At no point prior to suspending an individual’s driver’s license does the DMV or the South Carolina Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings (OMVH) conduct an inquiry into an individual’s ability to pay and willfulness of nonpayment. Yet, in South Carolina, nine out of ten people rely on a driver’s license to pursue their livelihoods, and one out of six people endure poverty. The result: South Carolina’s wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme robs more than 190,000 individuals of a crucial means of self-sufficiency and pushes many individuals deeper into poverty.
The notice individuals receive from the DMV regarding a pending driver’s license suspension for nonpayment makes clear that the only way for an individual to avoid driver’s license suspension is to pay their outstanding traffic fines and fees in full before the date on which the driver’s license suspension goes into effect. They must also pay a $100 reinstatement fee for each suspension for nonpayment. The notice does not explain or reference any alternative to full payment, nor does it set forth any process by which a person can contest a suspension for nonpayment on the basis of inability to pay. Notwithstanding the lack of notice, if an individual discovers that they can theoretically appeal the suspension, OMHV will not conduct a hearing unless the requester pays a $200 filing fee for each contested suspension. South Carolina law does not permit waiver of the $200 filing fee, nor of the $100 reinstatement fee.
Plaintiffs allege that South Carolina’s policy and practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals who cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees without first holding hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay and the willfulness of their nonpayment(s) punishes individuals for their poverty. Further, they allege the policy and practice disproportionately harms Black individuals. Indeed, an analysis of DMV data demonstrates that Black individuals are 3.4 times more likely than non-Latinx white individuals to have their South Carolina driver’s license indefinitely suspended for the nonpayment of traffic fines and fees. More specifically, Plaintiffs allege that:
- The indefinite suspensions of driver’s licenses for nonpayments of traffic fines and fees without pre-deprivation hearings for determinations on ability to pay and willful failure to pay violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, as delineated in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
- The failure to provide pre-deprivation hearings concerning indefinite driver’s license suspensions for the nonpayment(s) of traffic fines and fees without payment of the $200 filing fee violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, as delineated in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
- The indefinite suspensions of driver’s licenses for the nonpayments of the $100 reinstatement fee without pre-deprivation hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay and the willfulness of their nonpayment(s) violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, as delineated in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
- The indefinite suspensions of driver’s licenses for nonpayments of traffic fines and fees without pre-deprivation ability-to-pay hearings violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
- The inadequate pre-deprivation notice of procedures to prevent or contest indefinite suspensions of driver’s licenses for nonpayments of traffic fines and fees violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
In addition to injunctive and declaratory relief, Plaintiffs seek to certify two classes: (1) the “Suspension Class,” which Plaintiffs propose includes all individuals whose driver’s licenses are suspended, or will be suspended, by the South Carolina DMV due to their nonpayments of fines, fees, surcharges, assessments, or court costs assessed for traffic offenses; and (2) the “Reinstatement Fee Class,” which Plaintiffs propose includes all individuals whose driver’s licenses are suspended, or will be suspended, by the South Carolina DMV due to their nonpayments of reinstatement fees.
Judge Anderson, the Chief Judge of the South Carolina Administrative Law Court and Director of the Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings (“OMVH”), moved to be dismissed from the action, arguing, inter alia, that his enforcement of the $200.00 filing fee required for a hearing to challenge a driver’s license suspension to be set, without a pre-deprivation hearing to afford an individual the opportunity to assert their inability to pay, falls within the scope of his judicial duties and is thus subject to judicial immunity. On February 27, 2020, the court granted Judge Anderson’s motion to be dismissed from this action.
Plaintiffs argued that Judge Anderson possessed implied discretionary authority to waive the $200.00 filing fee and his failure to provide pre-deprivation hearings concerning indefinite driver’s license suspensions for the nonpayment of traffic fines and fees without payment of the filing fee is an administrative act, not one that is judicial in nature, and therefore not protected by judicial immunity. Judge Anderson, by contrast, argued that he lacks discretion to waive filing fees. The court agreed with Judge Anderson, finding that “South Carolina Supreme Court rulings make it clear that Judge Anderson lacks the legal authority to waive filing fees on the basis of indigency or any other reason not specifically authorized by statute.” The court found that even if Plaintiffs were correct, Judge Anderson’s actions were subject to judicial immunity and thus the injunctive relief sought by Plaintiffs was barred.
As to Plaintiffs’ claim for declaratory relief, the court held that the requirement of payment of a filing fee for one to contest the suspension of their driver’s license does not violate Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights because “there is no ‘free-floating right’ to access the courts which would render filing fees unconstitutional.” (quoting Roller v. Gunn, 107 F. 3d 227, 231-32 (4th Cir. 1997)). The court noted that although “South Carolina, perhaps unwisely, has not extended [an] indigency exception to driver’s license revocation proceedings,” as it does for other proceedings within the state court system, “there is simply no right for any person, absent statutory authority or the assertion of a fundamental right at stake in the court proceeding, to demand access to the courts without payment of a filing fee.”
For these reasons, the court granted Judge Anderson’s motion to dismiss him as a party to the action.
On May 11, 2020 the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, in which Plaintiffs sought an Order from the Court to: (1) prohibit the DMV from suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay that was not willful; and (2) require the DMV to lift all current failure to pay traffic ticket suspensions, strike reinstatement fees for suspensions, reinstate licenses suspended only on a failure to pay basis, and provide notice to license-holders of these changes.
The court explained that Plaintiffs must establish that: (1) Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits; (2) Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (3) the balance of equities tips in Plaintiffs’ favor; and (4) an in injunction is in the public interest to meet their burden of establishing that a preliminary injunction is warranted.. (citing Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 24 (2008))
In the court’s analysis on the likelihood of Plaintiff’s success on the merits, the court rejected Plaintiffs’ contention that “the ‘fundamental fairness’ test established in Bearden applies when a state imposes adverse consequences against indigent defendants solely because of their financial circumstances, regardless of whether those adverse consequences take the form of incarceration, reduced access to court procedures, or some other burden.’” (citations omitted). The court concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court has not applied the “fundamental fairness” doctrine beyond the contexts of incarceration and denied access to courts and therefore declined to apply the doctrine in the driver’s license suspension context.
The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that “the Griffin/Bearden line of cases has never been limited to deprivations of fundamental rights, but rather applies when the state imposes ‘heightened civil or criminal penalties based solely on [an individual’s] ability to pay.’” (citing Alexander v. Johnson, 742 F.2d 117, 126 (4th Cir. 1984)). Relying upon other recent decisions addressing driver’s license suspensions for nonpayments, the court concluded that no fundamental right or interest is at stake.
The court held that there is no fundamental right to a driver’s license and indigency is not a suspect classification. It explained that “[a]bsent the involvement of a suspect classification or fundamental right, statutes challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection or substantive due process guarantees are upheld so long as they have a rational basis,” and proceeded to analyze the challenged statutory scheme under rational basis review.
The court noted that the question before it was not whether the policy is misguided or unwise, but only whether the state had articulated a rational basis for the challenged policies and procedures. The court accepted Defendant’s asserted rational basis for its driver’s license suspension policies — “they promoted payment of traffic fines and deter violations of traffic laws.” The court also found that Defendant asserted “promoting compliance with court orders and  collecting traffic debt” as legitimate state interests. Therefore, on the limited record before the court at this early stage of the litigation, the court determined that Plaintiffs could not “demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits since the state ha[d] articulated a rational basis for its driver’s license suspension policies.”
Having determined that one of the four essential WInter factors had not been met, the court found it unnecessary to address the other Winter factors and Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction was denied.