With assist from ACLU, Floridians try to get back into the driver’s seat
Thursday, July 21, 2022
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Drivers, who have had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fines or fees related to city or county ordinance violations, now can check a website to see if they can get back on the road.
The website was created in the aftermath of the 2019 Florida v. Cummings case, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. In that case, Anthony Cummings, a homeless Ocala man, had been arrested three times for violating a city ordinance against sleeping outside. When he couldn’t pay $824 in fines and court fees, his license was suspended.
The 5th Judicial Circuit of Florida ruled that the Marion County Clerk of Court had no authority to suspend Cummings’ license for failing to pay those fines and fees. That ruling prompted the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) to identify more than 16,000 instances in which driver’s licenses were wrongly suspended across the state. Subsequently, the department restored more than 13,500 licenses. However, neither the Clerks of Court nor the FLHSMV notified anyone that they’d gotten their licenses back.
Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with the nonprofit Southern Legal Counsel, which worked with the ACLU on fixing this issue, said notices should have been sent to drivers whose licenses were reinstated because in an area like Orange County where there’s no reliable public transportation, losing one’s driver’s license can become a form of house arrest.
“People become home-bound in some ways,” said Dunn, who heads the public interest law firm’s Decriminalizing Poverty Project. Without having someone else to drive them around to work or to the grocery store, there’s no other realistic option but to drive without a license, she said, adding if you’re caught “then you become further criminalized.”
So, the ACLU of Florida recently launched FLDLCheck.com specifically for people who had violated city and county ordinances — such as having an open container of alcohol, panhandling or sleeping outside — and, as a result, had lost their licenses. Drivers can search by name to learn if they can drive again without waiting for a notification from a government agency. Since its launch, the website has had more than 9,000 visitors.
“Individuals who face these types of ordinance violation cases tend to be disproportionately homeless or from impoverished families,” Dunn said. “They are engaging in what we often refer to as ‘life sustaining offenses,’ which are things like sleeping outside if you don’t have a home to sleep in or requesting charity because you don’t have another source of income.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than 2,000 people on any given night in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties are homeless. According to Data USA, as of 2019, 14.9 percent of Orange County residents — or roughly 195,000 — were living in poverty, about 2.6 percentage points higher than the national average.
According to Dunn, the Cummings case led to 3,761 unlawful suspensions being lifted in Orange County, which allowed 1,953 individuals, many of whom had accrued multiple violations, to get their licenses back. This cleared out every license suspension for city/county ordinance violations in Orange County to date. The county stopped suspending licenses for such violations in August 2019.
Florida driver’s licenses are far more often suspended for unpaid court debt than dangerous driving. A 2017 report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center found that, while 1 in 8 Florida drivers had their licenses suspended, 72 percent of those suspensions were the result of unpaid fines and fees.
Suspending driver’s licenses as a punitive measure is “falling into disfavor because of these disproportionate impacts on BIPOC [Black, indigenous, people of color] communities,” Dunn said. “It’s disproportionately impacting individuals who can’t afford to pay their fees and fines.”