Tzedek DC and Venable File Suit Challenging DC’s Continued Enforcement of Payment-Based Driver’s License Scheme

Talk of the Town Case Update

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, Tzedek DC and Venable LLP filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s continued enforcement of its wealth-based driver’s license scheme. Part of the so-called “Clean Hands Law,” this scheme punishes DC residents who are too poor to pay more than $100 in parking, traffic, or other fines and fees by automatically disqualifying them from obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.

The lawsuit, filed along with a motion for a preliminary injunction in District of Columbia Superior Court, is on behalf of five DC residents deprived of driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay off aging parking and traffic tickets. These individuals allege that enforcing the Clean Hands Law against them violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees. They seek to prohibit the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer from relying on the Clean Hands Law to deny them driver’s licenses based on their debts.

“Because the harms inflicted by the Clean Hands Law fall disproportionately on Black DC residents, the law exacerbates racial inequalities,” the lawsuit states. “The Clean Hands Law also disrupts the workforce, harming both workers and employers. It needlessly exposes individuals to criminal punishment, again with a disproportionate impact on Black DC residents. And it diverts finite public safety resources from addressing violent crime.”

“The Clean Hands Law forces DC residents of limited means to struggle with essential daily activities like getting to a job, health care appointments, childcare, the grocery store, and the laundromat. It not only punishes DC residents for their poverty but also intensifies the instability of their everyday lives. Both the Constitution and the public interest support our clients receiving relief from this rule now,” said Tzedek DC’s Director-Counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman.

Last week, the DC Council passed a law that will reform the Clean Hands Law to no longer automatically disqualify District residents from getting or renewing their driver’s licenses based on unpaid debt. But that law will not take effect until Oct. 1, 2023, at the earliest.

“Wealth should never determine whether someone can drive lawfully,” said Seth Rosenthal, Chair of Venable’s Pro Bono Committee. “Enforcing the Clean Hands Law against DC residents of limited means based on their poverty is callous. It is also senseless: You cannot coerce debt payment from those without the money to pay, and taking away their ability to drive makes it even harder for them to hold a job that would enable them to pay. We applaud the Council for prospectively ending the Clean Hands regime. But our clients should not have to wait for more than another year to obtain relief from the ongoing violation of their constitutional rights.“

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in today’s suit include Ariel Levinson-Waldman and Joshua Levin of Tzedek DC and Seth Rosenthal, Claude Bailey, Andrew Dickson, Spencer Kaye, and Kirsten Bickelman of Venable. They have received terrific assistance from Tzedek DC pro bono legal volunteers Rebecca Azhdam and Jeffrey Nesvet, and Raphy Gendler, Ronald R. Glancz Avodah Jewish Service Corps Member at Tzedek DC.

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