Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
D.C. Council Committee on Business and Economic Development Hearing on
Bill 24-237 – “Clean Hands Certification Equity Amendment Act of 2021”
Ahoefa Ananouko, Policy Associate
April 18, 2022
Hello Chairperson McDuffie and members of the Committee. My name is Ahoefa Ananouko and I am a Policy Associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 15,000 members and supporters across the District.
The ACLU-DC works to dismantle systemic racism and advocates for sensible, evidence-based public policy solutions that safeguard fundamental liberties and rights of District residents. We support Bill 24-237, the “Clean Hands Certification Equity Amendment Act of 2021” and believe it is a good step towards mitigating some of the negative impacts of the “Clean Hands” law on District residents. This testimony focuses on how the current wealth-based system harms D.C. residents by criminalizing poverty and perpetuating systemic racism, as well as our constitutional concerns with the District’s existing Clean Hands Law.
Introduced by Councilmember McDuffie and co-sponsored by Councilmember Cheh, the purpose of Bill 24-237 is to ease the burden of D.C.’s “Clean Hands” laws on District residents pursuing licenses.
Currently, District law bars government entities from issuing or renewing licenses and permits to individuals who owe over $100 in fines, past due taxes, penalties, or any other form of debt to the District. The current law requires folks to self-certify at the time of application for a license or permit (or renewal) that they do not owe a debt more than $100, and penalties for falsely certifying include revocation of the permit or license and a $1,000 fine for each false certification.
The consequences of this law are most noticeable in people’s ability to obtain and retain driver’s licenses in the District, as residents can get their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay the fines and fees, as well as failure to appear in court regarding the fines. An April 2021 report by Tzedek D.C details the injustice of the law’s enforcement. According to the report, the “Clean Hands” law currently excludes tens of thousands of residents from renewing their driver’s licenses as penalty for having as little as $101 in unpaid fines or fees to the D.C. Government.
The structure of the fines and fees under the law criminalizes poverty and exacerbates the wealth gap between Black and white District residents—white District residents already have 81 times the wealth of Black residents and Black residents are also more likely to have more debt. Because the fines and fees function like a regressive tax, wealthier residents can simply pay off fines and fees, and they also do not have to dedicate the same portion of their income to do so. By contrast, a person with limited to no income not only has to put a higher portion of their income to pay the fine, but may not be able to pay it at all, and therefore risks facing more dire consequences like losing their driver’s license.
Losing a driver’s license (whether due to revocation or inability to renew due to outstanding fees) can result in a lack of reliable transportation for day-to-day errands, such as grocery runs and medical appointments, but also for getting to and from work. Unreliable transportation creates barriers to acquiring and holding on to a job. Some jobs are not accessible by public transit so a person must drive to work. There are also occupations—bus drivers and paramedics, for example—that require people to have driver’s licenses. These barriers make it more difficult for a person to maintain an income and pay off the fines. Together, these consequences limit opportunities for employment and financial stability.
Additionally, without access to reliable, comprehensive public transportation, people with a suspended license may continue to drive out of necessity. Those without the ability to pay fines and fees most likely do not have the ability to pay for forms of alternative transportation, such as cabs and car services; and therefore, risk getting caught in the web of the criminal legal system.
Because police can identify unpaid fines and fees with license plate readers, police enforcement of missed payments justifies pretextual police stops. At best, these stops result in additional fines for drivers struggling to pay original fines. At worst, these encounters escalate to violence or death. , In the District, Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to be fined because they are more likely to be stopped and ticketed for traffic violations. Although Black adults comprise only 43 percent of the District’s population, they make up 60 percent of drivers who are ticketed during stops. Driving without a license is the most common offense that leads to an arrest for a traffic violation in D.C. The violation is considered a criminal misdemeanor and can be penalized with up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500. It is also the most common reason individuals recently released from jail and prison are re-incarcerated.
Having a record has so many other detrimental implications, including being barred from certain types of housing and having limited employment opportunities—possibly creating a cycle of interactions with police and the criminal legal system.
Besides these financial and collateral consequences, the “Clean Hands” law presents constitutional concerns. First, the District may be in violation of residents’ rights to due process and equal protection by automatically prohibiting them from renewing their driver’s licenses, without consideration for their ability to pay. The Supreme Court has recognized this, and has struck down government practices that penalize people because of their poverty without making any effort to determine that a person “willfully refused to pay or failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts legally to acquire the resources to pay.”
The law may also violate District residents’ right to due process by not providing any avenue for them challenge their revocation or non-renewal based on their inability to pay. Again, the Supreme Court has recognized that such a process is required stating, “[Driver’s] licenses are not to be taken away without procedural due process” because the continued possession of a license, once issued, “may become essential in the pursuit of a livelihood.”
In addition to the possible due process violations of the “Clean Hands” law, it is disconcerting that the District government is relying on this type of scheme to generate revenue. When the Council passed the law prohibiting the District government from issuing or renewing licenses for nonpayment, its expressed purpose was to secure fine payments and generate revenue for the District. Not only does the law generate very little revenue for the District because it is counterproductive to improving collection outcomes , but its intention to profit off the backs of those with the least resources furthers systemic racism and economic injustice.
Debt-based driver’s license suspension as a law enforcement mechanism is ineffective and overly punitive, and the additional financial, health, and legal consequences felt by individuals and their families renders the practice indefensible. The law is simply depriving them of their livelihood, burdening them with more debt, and in making them less well-off.
To conclude, debt-based license suspensions throw drivers into a cycle of poverty, do not improve debt repayment rates, and make violent police confrontations more likely. Neither D.C. residents nor the government fare benefit from the current law because it harms individuals’ and families’ financial stability and diminishes opportunities to increase economic activity in the District.
Passing B24-237 is critical to making the District more racially equitable and economically just—goals that Chairperson McDuffie and other Councilmembers have championed throughout their time on the Council through legislations such as the NEAR Act and the REACH Act. B24-237 is an example of policy that reflects the economic reality of District residents—many of whom are continuing to survive a pandemic and recession, and generations of wealth inequality.