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D.C. drivers who owe fines can now renew licenses, new court order says

The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Benning Ridge Service Center in D.C. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)
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Thousands of D.C. residents who couldn’t renew their driver’s licenses due to fines and fees they owed to the city now can renew them under a court order.

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in late December requiring the city to halt enforcement of its “Clean Hands” law, which disqualifies residents from getting or renewing a driver’s license if they owe more than $100 in parking, traffic or other fines and fees. A Clean Hands certificate is also required for other government-issued permits and contracts, like professional or business licenses.

The ruling speeds up the timeline for a law passed by the D.C. Council last July that removes driver’s licenses from the list of licenses requiring a Clean Hands certificate and allows residents to obtain or renew a driver’s licenses even if they carry debt.

But the law, sponsored by council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (I-At Large) — who had argued that Clean Hands was inequitable and primarily hurt low-income D.C. residents — doesn’t go into effect until October. The preliminary injunction stops enforcement immediately.

“Although the Clean Hands Act will be repealed in October 2023, that is still ten months away,” the opinion issued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia reads. “Accordingly, that the Act will no longer be in force in the future does not cut against the significant private interest at issue here, given that the duration of any potentially wrongful deprivation has been ongoing and will last for ten months more.”

Tzedek DC, a legal group that advocates for low-income residents in debt-related matters, and law firm Venable filed the lawsuit to challenge the continued enforcement of Clean Hands on the behalf of five residents who are ineligible for license renewal because of outstanding fines.

“For over 20 years, the Clean Hands Law has forced 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,” Tzedek DC founding president and director-counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman said in a statement. “It not only punishes DC residents for their poverty but also intensifies the instability of their everyday lives.”

Levinson-Waldman said in an interview that Clean Hands disproportionately impacts working-class Black residents in the District. According to a report issued by Tzedek DC, a majority of fines collected by the D.C. government come from parking and traffic tickets. And a Washington Post analysis from 2021 found that 62 percent of all the fines from automated systems and police were issued in neighborhoods where Black residents make up at least 70 percent of the population and where the average median household income is below $50,000.

The court agreed with the disparate harm in its ruling.

“Granting injunctive relief is in the public interest because the Clean Hands Law ‘exacts broad societal costs,’ imposing challenges in the lives of predominantly marginalized D.C. residents,” the opinion reads.

That was the case for Carlotta Mitchell, one of the five named plaintiffs in the case who racked up more than $600 in unpaid fines and fees from expired tags while she was sleeping in her car. Now, Mitchell, 71, is excited about the possibility of getting her licenses sooner than she initially thought.

“It is exciting for me,” said Mitchell, who now lives in Anacostia, “because it means that, even though I’m older now, I can possibly get a new car so that I can travel far from my place and go shopping.”

In 2018, the council took its first action in amending Clean Hands when it stopped the city from suspending driver’s licenses for overdue fines. Once that law went into effect, the Department of Motor Vehicles restored the licenses of more than 15,000 residents, but the law continued to block residents from renewing any license if they owed more than $100. According to Tzedek DC, Clean Hands originally passed in 1996 with intent of deterring littering, illegal dumping and other violations by withholding licenses from people who committed those offenses and did not pay the fines.

The council largely agreed with McDuffie’s proposal to allow those who owed money to the city to renew driver’s licenses this year, but there was some debate over concerns of public safety. Some lawmakers worried that without the added consequences for traffic violations, it lessened the penalties for reckless drivers.

To address some of the traffic safety concerns, some council members proposed an amendment to McDuffie’s bill that would have kept Clean Hands in effect for people who had multiple fines for specific moving violations. The amendment ultimately failed, and the bill passed unanimously.