Tzedek DC and Venable Win Justice for DC Residents Struggling with Fines and Fees

Pro Bono Legal Team Prevails in Constitutional Challenge on Behalf of DC Residents Unable to Pay Fines and Fees Seeking Driver’s Licenses

5 min

In another step forward for fairness in DC's fines and fees system, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ordered the DC government to stop enforcing the Clean Hands Law against residents applying to obtain or renew a driver's license while owing over $100 in fines or fees to the District. In a ruling dated December 27, 2022, the Court granted a motion for preliminary injunction filed by Tzedek DC and Venable LLP in Parham v. District of Columbia. Under the Court's ruling, DC residents who have been disqualified by the Clean Hands Law from obtaining or renewing a driver's license can now apply for their license. 

Advocacy by Tzedek DC and its allies had already led to two related successes: the DC Council's 2018 enactment of legislation ending the suspension of driver's licenses of residents with outstanding debt and the Council's 2022 repeal of the application of the Clean Hands Law to applications to obtain or renew a driver's license. In the Parham case, Tzedek DC and Venable sued on behalf of five DC residents to challenge the continued enforcement of the Clean Hands Law since the Council's repeal legislation was not effective until October 2023. This court victory ensures that DC's residents will receive immediate relief from the unfair effects of the Clean Hands Law.

In granting the motion for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found that Tzedek DC's and Venable's clients demonstrated that they were likely to succeed in their argument that the law violated constitutional guarantees of due process because the District automatically disqualifies individuals from holding a driver's license with no opportunity for a hearing.

The Court found that "these five Plaintiffs are just some of the tens of thousands of DC residents who have been barred from receiving driver's licenses under the Clean Hands Law." Citing a report by the DC Council's Office of Racial Equity, the Court noted that "ending the application of the Clean Hands Law to driver's licenses will likely improve… [the] quality of life outcomes for Black residents who have a debt to the District government," and will "mitigate the burden on D.C. residents with disabilities, those who lack stable housing, and those who are struggling to maintain steady employment."

Under the terms of the Court's Order, the DC Government must immediately stop applying the Clean Hands Law to "deny applications to obtain or renew a driver's license."

"Judge Kollar-Kotelly's thorough, well-reasoned decision is an important win for DC residents, fairness, and constitutional rights against punitive debt collection by the Government," said Tzedek DC Founding President and Director-Counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman. "For over 20 years, the Clean Hands Law has forced DC residents of limited means to struggle with essential daily activities like getting to a job, health care appointments, childcare, the grocery store, and the laundromat. It not only punishes DC residents for their poverty but also intensifies the instability of their everyday lives."

He added, "Residents who have not been able to obtain or renew licenses due to this unconstitutional law can apply immediately. Anyone who has questions about the Court's ruling or applying for a license or renewal going forward can reach out now to Tzedek DC at info[at] or (202) 724-7386."

Venable Partner Ben Horowitz echoed the importance of the injunction order: "We are pleased for our clients and the thousands of DC residents that can immediately enjoy their constitutional protections and no longer have to wait in limbo for the DC Council's repeal of the Clean Hands Law to take effect."

The attorneys representing the DC resident plaintiffs in this suit include Ariel Levinson-Waldman and Joshua Levin of Tzedek DC, as well as Benjamin Horowitz, Claude Bailey, Andrew Dickson, and Spencer Kaye of Venable. They have received terrific assistance from Tzedek DC pro bono legal volunteers Rebecca Azhdam and Jeffrey Nesvet, Equal Justice Works Fellow Jennifer Holloway, Special Assistant Raphy Gendler, and Avodah Jewish Service Corps Member Gali Davar.

Tzedek DC is also grateful for the grant support received for the work in this case from the American College of Trial Lawyers Foundation, which has the apt slogan of "Because Justice Can't Wait."

The result in the Parham case is the latest step forward toward achieving fairness in the District's fines and fees system as a result of coalition advocacy by Tzedek DC, with pro bono partnership from Venable, and anti-poverty, civil rights, faith-based, and consumer justice allies.

  • In 2018, the DC Council legislatively repealed the Department of Motor Vehicles' practice of suspending driver's licenses and driving privileges as punishment for unpaid fines and fees.
  • In 2021, Maryland enacted a similar rule, a reform that Attorney General Frosh recently described as one of the things he is proudest of in his long tenure. Tzedek DC and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington submitted joint testimony supporting the change.
  • In 2022, the DC Council permanently repealed the provision of the Clean Hands Law that until the result in this lawsuit has disqualified tens of thousands of residents from renewing their driver's licenses. That repeal was made effective only as of October 1, 2023.
  • In 2023-24, Tzedek DC and coalition allies will continue to use the full range of tools toward systemic change. This will include efforts to reform the provisions of the DC Clean Hands Law that continue to punish residents with unpaid fines and fees by automatically disqualifying them from obtaining or renewing a small business license or a vocational license, like that required to be a barber, cosmetologist, food vendor, or nurse, or to engage in one of more than 100 other jobs in DC.