SARASOTA, Fla. — Two nonprofit activist groups are suing to block the Sarasota County clerk of court from suspending the driver's licenses of people who fail to pay fines and court costs after violating ordinances.
The Southern Legal Counsel and the ACLU of Florida on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in the state's Second District Court of Appeal. They are petitioning on behalf of U.S. Army veteran Stacy Ostolaza, who lives in Sarasota.
The lawsuit accuses Clerk of Court Karen E. Rushing of improperly suspending Ostolaza's license after he failed to pay $293 in court costs, fees, and fines linked to a civil citation.
"Ostolaza’s license suspension is one of 1,883 issued by the Sarasota Clerk of Court for failure to pay costs and fines related to non-criminal municipal or county ordinance violations between July 2006 and March 2021, even though Florida law only permits driver’s license suspensions for unpaid financial obligations related to criminal offenses," the ACLU wrote in a news release.
Chelsea Dunn, a lawyer with the Southern Legal Counsel, said the legal team was asking the court to prohibit this from happening again in Sarasota.
“In fact, the Florida Supreme Court has held that ordinance violations are not crimes as defined by state statute, and the Clerk has been informed in writing by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that such suspensions are unauthorized by law," Dunn added in a statement.
The ACLU says the county's driver's license suspensions have been disproportionately affecting people who are living in poverty and include those who have had violations as common as open container infractions or camping rule violations. Statewide, the organization says Black Floridians have had their licenses suspended at a rate that is 1.5 times higher than the rest of the state's population.
Driver's license suspension crackdowns were originally meant to curb reckless driving and speeding to help make highways more safe, the ACLU says. But, in recent years, the organization says it has become more frequently used as "a coercive means to collect fees and fines." The ACLU says more than 3.5 million suspension notices – over unpaid court debt – were issued in Florida between 2015 and 2017.
“The impact of this practice falls mostly on those who are unable to pay, such as our client, who is a veteran but currently unemployed while serving as the primary caregiver for his father, who is battling cancer,” ACLU staff attorney Jacqueline Azis wrote in a statement.
Azis says people who can't pay their fines right away get stuck with added penalties like interest, collection fees and set-up costs for any payment plans.
The ACLU pointed to a victory in a Marion County courtroom for a homeless man who was assessed $824 in court costs and got his license suspended over three cases under an Ocala ordinance for "open lodging." After that outcome, there was a meeting.
"Southern Legal Counsel and the ACLU of Florida met with the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, which provided statewide data showing license suspensions for nonpayment in local ordinance violation cases and sent letters to clerks of court in 29 counties, including Sarasota, notifying of their intention to reinstate driver’s licenses for more than 10,000 drivers," the ACLU wrote.
"The Sarasota County Clerk of Court refused to lift the suspensions in all but 21 cases and continued her practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fees and costs associated with local ordinance violation cases," the ACLU added.
If the ACLU and Southern Legal Counsel succeed in their lawsuit, Rushing could be forced to appear before a judge and demonstrate why she has the legal authority to suspend driver's licenses in such ordinance violation cases.
Rushing, on Tuesday, passed along a statement first sent to SNN.
"Florida law authorizes the clerk to send notice to the DHSMV when a driver does not pay their financial obligations for a criminal offense," Rushing said. "Florida law also supports that local ordinances that are punishable by jail time are criminal in nature. The offense in question was for a violation of a local ordinance that is punishable by jail time and is considered criminal in nature. The Clerk of Court does not have the authority to determine whose license should be suspended. Therefore, in this instance, the clerk met its obligation in sending appropriate notice to the DHSMV of this individual's failure to pay their financial obligation."
Rushing spoke further to 10 Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Hear more coming up at 5 p.m.