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Janice Carter

Source: ACLU/Sean Rayford

Janice Carter feels like a prisoner in her own city.

The retired U.S. Air Force veteran and mom of two longs to spend time with her adult children and extended family during the holidays. She aims to get a better paying job as a reentry caseworker. And she’d love to go to church or spend a day at the beach.

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But as of now, those wishes are unreachable.

That’s because Carter has been without a driver’s license for almost two years – all because she can’t afford to pay some $1,600 in fines and fees to the department of motor vehicles.

The policy has left her virtually stranded in her city of North Charleston, S.C.

Carter is one of nearly 200,000 people in South Carolina who currently have their driver’s licenses indefinitely suspended because they can’t afford to clear their debts to the DMV, curbing their access to better-paying jobs and other opportunities.

South Carolina’s driver’s license policy has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans: of the 190,000 South Carolinians without licenses because they can’t afford to pay tickets and fees, nearly 50 percent are black, even though black people comprise just 27 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census.

In fact, an analysis of DMV data shows that black South Carolinians are three times more likely to have their licenses suspended compared to their white counterparts, an alarming statistic in a state with a legacy of racial injustice following slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Carter said her problems began in 2016 when police stopped her while she was behind the wheel and issued her a speeding ticket. She couldn’t afford to pay for it and never heard anything from the DMV. But when police pulled her over again nearly two years later, she was shocked to learn her license was suspended.

The officer let her drive home, but he issued several additional traffic tickets, which caused her debt to the DMV to balloon.

Carter said she went to the DMV to plead her case, only to learn that the state indefinitely suspended her license because she hadn’t paid the original ticket, but without granting her a hearing to plead her case or verifying whether she actually was able to pay the debt. DMV employees told her that she would not get her license back unless she paid the debt in full – including a “reinstatement” fee, she said.

“All of this made me an emotional wreck, and now I’m doing my best to save money towards the tickets and fees,” Carter said. “I am working part-time jobs to support myself. I had a job (offer) in human resources as a case manager, but I can’t do that job without a license.”

Carter has joined forces with fellow South Carolinians Emily Bellamy and Linquista White to file a lawsuit against the state for constitutional rights violations over its driver’s license suspension policy.

The suit, filed by Nusrat Choudhury of the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges that the state violated drivers’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by taking their licenses away without first granting them a hearing and not checking whether they could actually pay the reinstatement fees.

Living without access to a driver’s license can have devastating consequences for people and families in a largely rural state where one in six people are living in poverty and just 44 percent of the population’s transportation needs are met through public transit, according to the state’s Department of Transportation.

Basic functions that many take for granted, like getting a new job, getting to and from a current job, attending houses of worship, and running errands like ferrying a child to school is out of the question. Carter said she relies on family and friends to get around, as well as ride-share apps, though it can get expensive.

“I do get angry, sad, frustrated,” Carter said, adding, “going into the holidays, I don’t have a real opportunity (to spend time with loved ones). I have to sit and wait.”

The state’s policy is essentially compelling its residents to make an impossible decision: forgo work and school, or drive on a suspended license, Choudhury said, forcing people who are already indigent further into poverty and contact with the legal system.

“This is the choice that South Carolina us putting single parents, people of color, people who need their licenses to survive,” Choudhury said. “That is against the most basic values of fairness and equal protection under the law.”

The case seeks an injunction that stops South Carolina from suspending any additional licenses without a hearing and first determining if the person can pay. The women also want South Carolina to immediately reinstate licenses that were suspended because the driver couldn’t pay, and for the policy to be dismantled and declared unconstitutional.

“My co-plaintiffs and I do want this law to be changed,” Carter said. “I do want people to be given options, more workable solutions so that we’re not losing income.”

A spokeswoman for the state DMV declined to comment. Co-defendant Chief Judge Ralph K. Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The state hasn’t yet responded to the women’s’ lawsuit, but Choudhury has filed a preliminary injunction that would order the DMV to stop suspending licenses without first figuring out of the person is able to pay. The suit should be heard in early 2020.

In the meantime, Carter said she’s hopeful that one day soon she’ll be back to her normal life behind the wheel.

“No one should lose their driver’s license,” she said, “because they don’t have the money for fines and fees.”

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