A federal lawsuit claims that South Carolina violates the rights of poor people with unpaid traffic tickets.
The lawsuit is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is part of a broader campaign by civil rights groups to dismantle practices that they say penalize, and sometimes criminalize, poverty. But is that what’s really happening?
Janice Carter is a 42-year-old Air Force service veteran. She is listed as a plaintiff in the case. She says that after she accrued several tickets for traffic violations, the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended her license. To get it reinstated, Carter says she must come up with $1,100 to cover the fines plus another $500 in fees. Her only alternative, she says, is to request a hearing to explain why she can’t pay. But that hearing isn’t free. It would cost $800. Carter says neither option is affordable.
The lawyers representing Carter say the scenario makes for a “wealth-based” system of law enforcement that deprives people of their driving privileges (sometimes preventing them from getting to work) only because they are poor.
“I’m not contesting [the fines],” says Carter. She admits that she violated the law.
Nusrat Choudhury of the ACLU’s racial justice program says others in the case admit the same. “None of the plaintiffs here are contesting the fact that they owe for traffic tickets,” Choudhury says.
But Carter believes she should not lose her right to drive, even if she breaks the law and can’t pay the penalty.
According to Choudhury, the plaintiffs want the state to allow them an exception because of their low income. They want a cost-free means of negotiating their penalties.
But does that, in turn, create favoritism for the poor over the more affluent? Should a wealthy person be required to pay fees for the same access that a poor one gets for free?
God is clear that He disapproves unfair treatment of the poor. But He also says favoring the poor over the wealthy is likewise injustice. Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
The solution to avoiding costly fees that may interfere with one’s ability to drive and work is simple and equitable for everyone, regardless of financial status: Obey the traffic laws that exist for the common good. (See also Romans 13:1-6.)