March 02, 2018 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

By George T. (Buck) Lewis, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

In the fall of last year, the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) in Virginia issued an impressive report entitled, Driven by Dollars. This report is a state-by-state analysis of driver's license suspension laws for failure to pay court debt. The driver's license suspension issue is just one of many relating to fines and fees which prevent people from getting back to being productive members of society after a problem with the law. To review the full report, click on this link: https://www.justice4all.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Driven-by-Dollars.pdf. As the report notes, "state law suspending or revoking driver's licenses to punish failure to pay court costs and fines are ubiquitous, despite the growing consensus that this kind of policy is unfair and counterproductive." In many states, if a person does not pay a court cost or a fine, states suspend their driver's license as a way of pressuring them to pay.

However, as the report states, "[b]y cutting people off from jobs, license-for-payment systems create a self-defeating vicious cycle." And, not only do the effects of this approach impact the person involved, it impacts children who may not receive child support payments, former spouses who may not receive alimony payments, and all manner of other difficulties which spin out of the loss of a driver's license. As of the date of the report, forty-three states and the District of Columbia suspend driver's license because of unpaid court debt. Five states—Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Michigan—account for over 4 million driver's license suspensions. Any lawyer who has ever worked a homeless legal clinic knows that the loss of a driver's license can be a significant factor causing people to become homeless.

The report tells the story of a certified nursing assistant and mother of two. She was convicted of a crime, sent to jail, and ordered to pay costs, including the costs of the lawyer appointed to represent her because she was indigent. She served her jail time but was unable to pay the court costs, resulting in the automatic suspension of her driver's license. This is a story which is replicated hundreds of thousands of times across our country every year. The net result of this approach is that people end up being punished way out of proportion to the seriousness of their infraction simply because they are poor and cannot afford to pay their court costs. They spiral down and end up becoming a much greater burden upon the communities in which they live than had they just been able to retain their license. They stay in what the report calls a "perpetual state of punishment."

There are many lessons to be learned from the effort of pro bono lawyers to address this situation. The first is that, as usual, collaboration is critical. Lawyers from different organizations have come together to bring significant cases to challenge these systems. For example, in Tennessee, a private law firm, along with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York, the Civil Rights Corp in D.C., and Just City in Memphis, have collaborated to challenge these systems and have produced some important results

In October 2017, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued a temporary restraining order directing the immediate reinstatement of the driver's licenses of Fred Robinson and Ashley Sprague, named plaintiffs in their class action lawsuit captioned Robinson v. Purkey. The lawsuit challenged Tennessee's unlawful suspension of driver's licenses of people too poor to pay traffic fines. In Tennessee, more than a quarter million driver's licenses have been suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets, and in many instances, those whose licenses were suspended were too poor to pay these debts. Without their licenses, these people cannot access jobs, health care, childcare, and other fundamental aspects of daily life.
This collaboration of lawyers has also filed a companion case, Thomas v. Purkey, on behalf of low-income people whose licenses were revoked because they could not pay fines and fees arising from criminal prosecutions. Similar collaborations between law firms and nonprofit organizations have taken place to challenge these issues in other jurisdictions as well.

Notwithstanding this victory, it is still important for pro bono lawyers to help low-income citizens get their licenses reinstated. It is not uncommon for individuals to have fees assessed in numerous different courts, all of which must be waived by the presiding judge in order for these individuals to be eligible for reinstatement of their licenses. Seeking these waivers is not difficult for a lawyer but can be overwhelming for those whose licenses have been suspended. Motions must be filed in each court, and an explanation must be made to the court as to why fees should be waived. That process then needs to be repeated in each court. This type of pro bono can be some of the most rewarding pro bono done by individual lawyers. An individual lawyer or a team of lawyers from different states can literally change the course of an individual's life by helping them get their driver's license back, in turn, helping them get employment, housing and utilities, and all of the other necessities of life. The lawyers I know who have done this pro bono work have found this to be one of the most fulfilling tasks they have performed as lawyers.

Speaking of collaboration, the ABA's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service intends to help facilitate the creation and dissemination of model legislation which can be used to reform our antiquated systems. Helping someone get their driver's license reinstated, like most pro bono tasks, requires only a small commitment on the part of a lawyer, but can have a profound effect on the life of a client, and a positive impact upon the community in which they live.