Hernandez v. California DMV (Driver's License Suspension)

Closed Case
Oct 24, 2016

Page Media

DMV photo by Michael Ocampo via flickr

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California, along with a coalition of legal organizations, sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles for illegally suspending the driver's licenses of low-income Californians.

At the time we filed suit, state law allowed the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the licenses of people who had "willfully" failed to pay these fines and fees, but most California traffic courts did not give drivers a meaningful opportunity to prove that their failure to pay is due to poverty, rather than willful non-compliance. 

The suit was brought on behalf of drivers who had their drivers licenses suspended in violation of their statutory, due process, and equal protection rights. Each plaintiff was unable to pay the exorbitant fines associated with routine traffic tickets, and had his or her license suspended without an assessment of their ability to pay.

While this suit was pending, California eliminated the law that provided for the suspension of driver’s licenses based on a failure to pay a traffic ticket. In 2018, the DMV lifted several hundred thousand existing “failure to pay” suspensions. In June of 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled in our favor on several remaining claims, holding that state law only permitted the suspension of a license for failure to appear in court when the traffic court provided a notice to DMV that the failure to appear was willful.

Based on this decision, in November of 2020, we reached an agreement under which the DMV eliminated an additional 554,997 “failure to appear” suspensions where the Court had not notified the DMV that the failure to appear was willful. The DMV also agreed to change its policies to ensure that, going forward, it will only suspend a license when the traffic court notifies the DMV that the failure to appear was willful. Under this agreement the DMV also paid $812,500 to the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ organizations for costs and fees, as the prevailing parties in the case.

Low-Income Drivers Sue California DMV for Illegally Suspending Licenses (Oct. 25, 2016)

Conductores de bajos recursos demandan al DMV de California por suspender ilegalmente licencias de conducir (Oct. 25, 2016)

CA Legal Orgs Bring First-of-its-kind Lawsuit Challenging Harmful Driver’s License Suspension Policies (Jun. 15, 2016)

The Government Wants to Take Away My License Because I’m Poor. I Need It To Survive. (Jul. 6, 2016)

Driver’s License Suspensions Still a Problem for People Too Poor to Pay Exorbitant Traffic Fines (Mar. 21, 2016)

Case Developments