Legal groups sue Sarasota County for suspending nearly 2,000 drivers licenses over legal fees

Despite Florida law, Sarasota County has continued to suspend driver's licenses for non-criminal offenses.

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The Southern Legal Counsel and the ACLU of Florida opened a lawsuit this month against Sarasota County for suspending nearly 2,000 drivers licenses due to back owed legal fees.

On Jan. 6, the groups petitioned Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal on behalf of U.S. Army veteran Stacy Ostolaza, whose license was improperly suspended by Sarasota County Clerk of Court after he failed to pay $293 for court costs, fees, and fines associated with a civil citation for violating a local ordinance.

But Ostolaza’s license suspension is just one of 1,883 that the county improperly suspended, the legal groups said in a press release.

The suspensions resulted from drivers' failure to pay costs and fines related to non-criminal municipal or county ordinance violations between July 2006 and March 2021. The county did this despite the fact that Florida law only permits license suspensions for unpaid fees related to criminal offenses.

The practice of suspending driver’s licenses in Florida was originally a response to reckless driving, speeding, and other driving-related offenses to promote highway safety, but it has increasingly been used as a coercive means to collect fees and fines, the groups say. Between 2015-2017, more than 3.5 million suspension notices were issued in Florida for unpaid court debt.

Chelsea Dunn, a lawyer with the Southern Legal Counsel, said that the county should be aware that the county's reasoning for suspending licenses is not legal.

“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 said in the statement.
The ACLU said that the county's driver's license suspensions have  disproportionately affected 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.
ACLU Staff Attorney Jacqueline Azis gave a specific example of a vulnerable client who is suffering after his license was suspended.

“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,” Azis wrote in the statement. Azis said 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 highlighted 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", or, sleeping outside. After that, a meeting led to some progress on the issue.

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 said that despite precedent for ending the practice of suspending licenses for such minor violations, Sarasota continued on.

"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 said.