Retired Atty's Fight To Help End DC Driver License Penalties

By Andrea Keckley | February 24, 2023, 7:23 PM EST ·

Jeff Nesvet
Jeff Nesvet
After retiring in 2018 from several decades of government work, a former U.S. Department of Labor attorney found a new opportunity to serve the public as he recently helped mount a successful challenge to a Washington, D.C., rule barring individuals with unpaid fines from obtaining or renewing driver licenses.

Working with Tzedek DC, a nonprofit that helps low-income district residents facing consumer-related issues such as abusive debt collection practices, Jeff Nesvet was able to help convince a federal judge to issue an injunction barring enforcement of a part of the city's so-called Clean Hands Law.

Under one provision of the Clean Hands Law, which critics said disproportionately impacted Black residents, individuals owing more than $100 in fines to the district were precluded from either applying for or renewing their driver's licenses until all outstanding fees were paid.

Nesvet, a former associate solicitor for the DOL focused on employment and training, connected with Tzedek DC through We The Action, a nonprofit dedicated to linking volunteer lawyers with groups looking to tap into their legal experience.

"I happened to see an advertisement from Tzedek DC looking for somebody to consult on this project," Nesvet told Law360. "And obviously, since I had been a supervisor for 30 years, I felt this fell exactly within the kind of opportunity I would be interested in. The issues are very compelling."

Since its inception in 2017, We The Action says it has facilitated more than 55,000 connections between organizations and attorneys looking to use their legal talent to give back.

"The law can be an engine for change — especially among underrepresented communities — as we fight for racial justice, protect the most vulnerable and defend our values," We The Action executive director Anna Chu told Law360. "Lawyers like Jeff represent the best of the legal community, dedicating years of his life to oppose an unjust law that disproportionately harmed communities of color and low-income D.C. residents."

Nesvet first connected with Tzedek DC in 2019 and began helping the group craft legal arguments against the Clean Hands Law. At the same time, a collective of national and local civil rights, anti-poverty, anti-racism and faith-based groups began pressuring the District of Columbia City Council to vote to overturn the law. The council ultimately voted unanimously to void the law's provisions related to driver licenses in July 2022, although the changes are not slated to go into effect until October.

As it pursued its own attack in a lawsuit originally filed in D.C. Superior Court in July 2022 and later removed to federal court, Tzedek DC pointed to data the Washington-based think tank the Urban Institute released in 2016 showing an 81% higher median income among white households in the city as compared to Black households. And according to a report Tzedek DC published in 2021, the group found Black motorists receive 65% of tickets issued during traffic stops despite making up just 43% of the district's population.

"You can argue the harm done disproportionately affected certain communities," Nesvet said. "That contributed to the argument that it was a substantive due process violation that did not meet the rational or even the most limited rational purpose test."

With Nesvet's help, the group ultimately convinced the District Court for the District of Columbia the automatic barring of driver license renewals did not provide the due process protections required to take away someone's property right.

"There's also a line of cases going back many years in the [U.S.] Supreme Court," he said. "It's kind of a conjunction of due process and equal protection that bars wealth discrimination. And this is ... classic wealth discrimination."

"It's also a basic, substantive due process argument that it's simply irrational, to the extent that it's unconstitutional, to penalize somebody for not doing something they do not have the ability to do," Nesvet added. "Then there's also a series of cases talking about not discriminating in collection strategies so that it's unconstitutional for the government to have harsher penalties for collecting debts than a private company."

Tzedek DC founding director Ariel Levinson-Waldman told Law360 the investigations into policing tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 served as a consciousness-raising event for him.

In an investigation into law enforcement practices in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that "city, police, and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established."

"The racial justice concerns associated with Ferguson, and around the country, raise questions about the … equities around using fines and fees … to balance the books through this sort of backdoor tax strategy, with disparate impact on Americans in neighborhoods of color," Levinson-Waldman said.

Levinson-Waldman and Joshua M. Levin of Tzedek DC worked with Nesvet on the Clean Hands Law case alongside Venable LLP attorneys Claude E. Bailey, Andrew B. Dickson, Spencer R. Kaye and Seth A. Rosenthal, who is now at the Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia.

Tzedek DC's work on the case is not finished. While the law's provision related to driver licenses for residents with unpaid fines has been effectively killed by both a preliminary injunction and an upcoming repeal, other parts of the law remain in place.

The nonprofit legal aid organization remains focused on challenging separate provisions of the law precluding those owing more than $100 in fines and fees from obtaining occupational or small business licenses.

"There's already a very strong 30-plus-organization coalition that addressed the driver's license issues," Levinson-Waldman said. "And that coalition and others are absolutely focused on continuing to pursue change as to the Clean Hands Law."

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the government agency Nesvet worked for.

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