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D.C. Enacts Tzedek DC-Championed Driver’s License Suspension Reform Bill

Monday, September 10, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: UDC Law Staff
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On Sept. 5, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) returned the Traffic and Parking Ticket Penalty Amendment Act of 2018 to the D.C. Council, ending a longstanding practice of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that automatically suspended the driving privileges of District residents for unpaid traffic debt or failure to appear at a traffic hearing. The bill, which will now per the D.C. Home Rule Act undergo congressional review, also promises to restore driving privileges to District residents whose licenses remain suspended due to the practice — roughly 126,000 residents suffered suspension due to traffic debt since just 2010.

The successful campaign, which marks a historic shift in the District’s approach to poverty and procedural justice, was championed by Tzedek DC, an independent public interest law center headquartered at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law). The UDC Law Legislation Clinic provided key advice in the effort, and seven UDC Law students worked on the campaign with Tzedek DC, which culminated in the unanimous passage of the legislation by the D.C. Council in July.

Along with a coalition of District advocacy and community groups, Tzedek DC built broad support for the reform through a community advocacy campaign. Over the course of multiple D.C. Council hearings, Tzedek DC and coalition partners organized powerful testimony from D.C. residents affected by the practice and forcefully argued that license suspension for non-payment of debt contributes to a cycle of poverty and criminalization that disproportionately affects communities of color. An estimated 80 percent of D.C. residents whose licenses were suspended between 2011 and 2016 were African American.

“We have had a regressive, counterproductive and punitive policy for many years,” Tzedek DC’s President and Director-Counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman told The Washington Post on July 12, calling the legislation "an important step forward." The newspaper’s Editorial Board weighed in to endorse the reform later in July, decrying the policy as an “archaic and inequitable practice” that punishes the poor simply for being poor. Levinson-Waldman, who also has since 2012 served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the law school, followed up with an Aug. 19 op-ed in the Post to make the case that suspending licenses for unpaid debt not only perpetuates poverty but affirmatively criminalizes it, while calling on the District to set a national example for the 43 states who retain automatic-suspension policies for unpaid traffic debt.

With this much-needed reform on the brink of taking effect, Tzedek DC has no intention of slowing down its legislative advocacy. The organization is working to build on the campaign’s momentum to secure passage of measures to protect low-income D.C. residents from excessive wage garnishment as well as suspension of driving privileges for court-based debt and the denial of license renewal for unpaid debts which were not included in the recent reform.

Launched in February 2017, Tzedek DC works to safeguard the rights of low-income District residents through direct representation, community legal education, and policy advocacy combatting illegal debt collection practices and consumer protections problems such as identity theft and predatory lending. While mentoring and supervising over a dozen UDC Law students, in the year and a half since its launch, Tzedek DC has provided free legal help to over 430 clients, with the average full representation case yielding over $1,000 in client savings, equal to more than two weeks wages at the current minimum wage.


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