Norris Harvey can’t work anymore because he can’t renew his driver’s license. Harvey can’t renew his driver’s license because he owes $2,795 in tickets and penalties to the D.C. government.
Under D.C.’s current rules, residents can enter a payment plan if they owe $250 or more in parking and traffic tickets, and are able to pay the total debt within six months and at least 25 percent of the sum upfront. Harvey tried to pay off his debt to the D.C. government under a payment plan. But medical expenses associated with a heart attack he suffered made it impossible to meet the agreement. Residents cannot enter a new payment plan after failing to complete one.
“I was in a hole and I couldn’t get out of it. I ended up losing the job. I couldn’t pay the payment plan, and now they tell me it’s a once in a lifetime situation,” says Harvey. “Well to me, you were the cause of me losing my job because you wouldn’t let me renew my driver’s license.”
Harvey now lives off of $814 in monthly Social Security and disability checks. Tickets he accumulated between 2003 and 2005 mean he can no longer work as a loan officer for a mortgage company. These tickets also mean he cannot visit his grandchildren.
“I could take them places. We could do things,” he says of having a driver’s license again. “And that’s why I can’t seem to have a life now. Because I love my grandchildren and want to be with them, but they live too far away.”
Harvey is among tens of thousands of D.C. residents who cannot renew their driver’s licenses just because they have more than $100 in parking and traffic tickets, according to a new report published by Tzedek DC, a legal group that helps people in debt, and the Venable law firm. A little-known D.C. law called the “Clean Hands Law” disqualifies residents from obtaining or renewing their driver’s licenses if they owe more than $100 to the D.C. government. Two lawmakers are trying to change the law, saying it is a matter of racial equity.
The report argues that the law punishes D.C. residents for being too poor. The Clean Hands Law disproportionately harms Black residents, because they are more likely to be ticketed during traffic stops than their White counterparts and less likely to have the resources to pay those fines. Without driver’s licenses, residents struggle to perform daily tasks, from going to work to going to the grocery store. (Fewer than one in five jobs in the D.C. area are accessible via public transit within 60 minutes.)
The Clean Hands Law also subjects people to arrest, the report says. In D.C., driving without a valid license is a criminal misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail. But people still drive without a valid license. The report says that three-fourths of drivers who used to have a valid license drive at least occasionally; and that driving without a license was the most serious offense in 80 percent of nearly 30,000 arrests for traffic violations made by D.C. police between Jan. 2013 and Nov. 2020.
The report goes on to describe how easy it is to accumulate debt. Tickets for tailgating, parking in a loading zone, or turning right on red are $100. The $100 can double if the fine isn’t paid within 30 days. If the fine isn’t paid within 90 days, someone is then looking at $240 in debt because of a $40 surcharge.
D.C. is one of three jurisdictions that denies driver’s license renewals to people who owe money to the government, according to the report. Illinois and Texas are the others. D.C. used to be a leader on this issue. In 2018, the Council ended suspensions of driver’s licenses based on unpaid debt. The law led to nearly 18,000 D.C. residents gaining the opportunity to restore their licenses. Other states followed suit but went further. For example, Maryland ended suspension and nonrenewal of driver’s licenses due to unpaid traffic debt in 2020. The D.C. Council nearly reformed the Clean Hands Law in 2017 and 2018. But a bill that sought to end the government practice of withholding driver’s licenses from residents due to unpaid traffic debt never made it out of committee.
“I believe it was based on a concern raised by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer about how expensive it could be or a question raised about the fiscal impact. There was never any kind of official analysis or statement or anything,” says Tzedek’s founder, Ariel Levinson-Waldman.
“Ultimately this actually does not cost the District anything or much, because the people who pay now have incentive to continue paying. And the people who can’t pay now will continue to be unable to pay,” he continues. “The difference would be we would increase their access to the job market and to quality of life by allowing them to drive to a job, to keep a job, get groceries, do laundry without having to have a three-hour roundtrip.”
It’s unclear how many residents cannot obtain or renew a driver’s license due to the Clean Hands Law because the government refuses to collect this data, according to the report. Based on $175,869 in unpaid fines and fees of $100 or more in 2019, researchers suspect that more than 58,623 residents are harmed by the law, or 10 percent of D.C.’s adult population.
Given calls for action around racial equity, Levinson-Waldman believes the time is now to ensure that wealth does not determine whether a resident gets to keep their driver’s license. He and other advocates, from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to Whitman-Walker Health Legal Services, are calling for immediate action. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman is introducing a bill this week that amends the Clean Hands Law to do just that.
“This is about making sure that wealth or not having access to money easily is not an impediment to opportunity. That’s how I see it,” says Silverman. “I don’t want people to see this as ‘Oh, you’re letting a bunch of reckless people on the road.’ What most of this government debt is is like parking tickets or perhaps you didn’t pay your property taxes.”
“Something like that should not prevent you from being able to work or take care of your family,” she adds.
She hopes to work with her colleagues to pass legislation this Council period, or even this year, given the sense of urgency around the bill. Silverman says she has six co-introducers so far. Among the co-introducers is At-Large Councilmember Robert White.
“It’s not an issue that people normally contact their councilmembers about and I think it’s because people just assume that because this is the way things have been, this is the way things will be,” says White. “But I will say frequently in my social and familial circles, for years, this is one of several topics of conversation about how the government perpetuates inequality.”
According to advocates, there is something Mayor Muriel Bowser can do in the interim: Direct the DMV to stop denying driver’s licenses for failure to pay outstanding fines and fees. The mayor did just announce a four-month amnesty program on parking and traffic tickets. Levinson-Waldman applauds the mayor but says that the program will not work for many who cannot afford to pay off all their principal at once.
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