New DC Law Ending Unfair Driver’s License Suspensions Takes Effect
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Last week, thousands of DC residents with suspended driver’s licenses based on unpaid civil money judgments became eligible to have their licenses reinstated. On March 13 the Driver’s License Revocation Fairness Amendment Act of 2018, passed by the DC Council last December, officially took effect as DC Law 22-0236. According to a report recently released by the DMV, 2,282 DC residents have their licenses suspended as a result of provisions now repealed under the new law. The DMV has announced it will mail notices to all affected persons letting them know they can apply for reinstatement of their licenses.

In years past, many District residents were surprised to learn that their driver’s license and registration could be suspended due to failure to pay certain civil money judgments. Until now, if a person whose auto insurance had lapsed got into an accident and was later found by a court to be at fault, the judgment creditor – generally the company that insured the other driver -- could require the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the person’s license and registration until the person satisfied the judgment.

The insurers’ past use of license suspension as a debt collection tool in this context was unduly harsh. DC residents often need their licenses to carry out a multitude of basic, day-to-day functions like getting to work, school, and health care appointments. And for the many low-income residents most impacted by the practice, license suspension is also a self-defeating form of coercion and punishment. License suspension often undermines the ability of the defendant to pay the very judgment that led to the suspension in the first place.

In passing the Driver’s License Revocation Fairness Amendment Act of 2018, the DC Council recognized the unduly harsh consequences of the existing system, especially for low income drivers. The Act repeals targeted sections of the DC Code that authorized the license suspensions. Importantly, the Act leaves in place other mechanisms that allow the DMV to enforce the District’s compulsory motor vehicle insurance system.

The passage of this bill was part two in a series of legislative efforts to end the unfair practice of debt-based license suspension in contexts unrelated to public safety. Earlier last year, the Council passed the related Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act of 2017, addressing inequities in the system for suspending driver’s licenses based on unpaid traffic citations (that Act, now DC Law 22-0175, became effective on October 30, 2018, although portions of it still need to be funded in the upcoming budget cycle). The Legal Aid Society partnered with Tzedek DC to testify on both bills and to advocate for their passage.

Legal Aid commends Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Vincent Gray, Trayon White, Brianne Nadeau, Anita Bonds, and David Grosso, who co-introduced the Driver’s License Revocation Fairness Amendment Act. We would also like to thank Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff, who worked to quickly move both this bill and the Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act through committee so that the Council could pass both bills before the close of 2018.

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