Pennsylvania Driving People with Drug Convictions into Poverty

capitol-complex-aerialYesterday, we filed a lawsuit against Governor Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation for suspending the driver’s licenses of any person convicted of a drug offense, even when that offense is unrelated to driving or the offender has a perfect traffic safety record.

Between 2011 and 2016, Pennsylvania suspended the licenses of nearly 149,000 drivers solely because of drug-related offenses, including possession of a small amount of marijuana. This law targets those who have already been sentenced and is an unfair attempt to place additional punishment on drug-offenders. 38 states have already repealed similar laws.

Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that negatively affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Without the ability to drive, people can’t find and maintain employment, pursue education, keep medical appointments, or care for loved ones.

This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Pennsylvania’s impoverished neighborhoods, which are more likely to be policed. This discriminatory system makes it nearly impossible for former offenders to rehabilitate and traps many hard-working Pennsylvanians in an endless cycle of poverty.

The two named plaintiffs are both fathers living in Philadelphia who had their licenses suspended for possession of marijuana. Harold Russell, a disabled father with 6 children and 9 grandchildren, struggles to maintain his home cleaning business. Without a license, he can’t drive to clients’ houses and has seen his weekly income drop from $700 to $200 — if he can get any work at all. Sean Williams, 25, has a son who was born prematurely who has been in the hospital for the first eight months of his life but is due to be released soon. Sean worries that without a license he will not be able to safely transport his son to necessary doctor’s appointments or seek medical help in the case of an emergency.

The lawsuit (Case No. 2:18-cv-00115-RK) has been filed in partnership with Goldstein Mehta, LLC.

You can read the filed complaint here: 1, 2017-01-10 P Complaint

Helping A Mother Visit Her Sons

One of Equal Justice Under Law’s clients, Joyce Davis — a Detroit-area mother and grandmother who is living on a fixed income and battling cancer — is not allowed to visit her two sons in prison because of unpaid traffic tickets. She owes $1485 to the state. Last week, she told her story to The Marshall Project:

davis brothers

Not being able to see my children, with all this hanging over me, is devastating. For one, you never know what will happen to me with my condition, and it would be devastating to not be with them, to not hold them close, ever again.”

After The Marshall Project story was posted, readers immediately started reaching out, asking how they could help, so Equal Justice Under Law organized the fundraising efforts. In less than 24 hours, supporters raised the funds to pay off all of Joyce’s debt, so she can start the process of reapplying for visitation. Joyce was overjoyed: “I love all of you! I haven’t seen my sons in nearly three years. That’s a blessing from God! Someone’s watching out for me down here and up there.”

Equal Justice Under Law is proud to be a part of Joyce’s reunion with her sons — and we will keep all of you updated as her story continues.

Private Probation Settlement for $14.3 million

In October 2015, Equal Justice Under Law filed a landmark RICO and constitutional class action lawsuit Rodriguez v. Providence — in federal court in Nashville, TN, challenging the predatory practices of Providence Community Corrections (“PCC”), accusing it of extorting, threatening, and abusing the impoverished people that it was supposed to be supervising in Rutherford County, Tennessee.

On September 18, 2017, PCC and Rutherford County agreed to settle that case for $14.3 million.

This settlement is an important victory for the nearly 30,000 class members whom PCC allegedly subjected to predatory and abusive practices. In addition to recompensating tens of thousands of probationers for fees that PCC illegally collected, this settlement sends a clear message to private probation companies all across the country: you will pay for violating probationers’ constitutional rights.

This settlement is pending court approval.

Class Action Lawsuit in Montana

IMG_6706On August 31, Equal Justice Under Law filed a landmark class action lawsuit to stop Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or fines.

Losing a driver’s license can be devastating, especially in a state like Montana with few public transportation options. Thousands of Montanans can’t get their children to daycare or school, keep medical appointments, make a trip to the grocery store, or even drive to work. Montana’s policy traps people in an impossible cycle of poverty: they cannot afford to reinstate their licenses without steady employment, but they are unable to work without licenses.

This is what happened to Michael DiFrancesco, a 22-year old resident of Montana who has never been charged with a traffic violation. Michael doesn’t have a license simply because he was unable to pay a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was underage. His court debt has now ballooned to over $4,000. Without a license, it’s difficult for Michael to travel to his job as a construction worker, so he experiences intermittent unemployment as well as periods of homelessness. This is not how our justice system is supposed to work.

Michael is just one of thousands of people across the country living below the poverty line who have been affected by discriminatory license suspension practices. Yet, amazingly, until recently, these laws have gone unchallenged. Equal Justice Under Law is working to change this by leading the charge in challenging these discriminatory laws.

Challenging Wealth-Based Drivers’ License Suspensions in Michigan

IMG_1169 Michigan (Lansing)On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class action lawsuit against the Secretary of State in Michigan for suspending people’s drivers’ licenses simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or fines.

Our clients, Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, are both residents of Detroit and mothers of young children. They each were stopped for routine traffic violations, but when they could not afford to pay the fines — because they live well below the poverty line — the state suspended their drivers’ licenses. Now, Adrian has had difficulty finding and keeping a job, and Kitia, who suffers from a physical disability, can’t drive herself to her medical appointments.

This case was filed in conjunction with Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) both in Detroit.