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Advocacy groups sue Sarasota's county clerk of court for suspending driver's licenses

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The advocacy groups are questioning the Sarasota County clerk of court's legal authority to suspend driver’s licenses for non-payment of court costs, associated with county ordinance violations.

The ACLU says the county's driver's license suspensions have been disproportionately affecting people who are living in poverty

The ACLU of Florida and Southern Legal Counsel are suing the Sarasota County clerk of court.

The lawsuit questions the court's legal authority to suspend driver's licenses over unpaid fines for non-criminal activities, such as open container violations.

Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel, says the case would affect more than 1,800 license suspensions.

“So, our ultimate goal is to have those suspensions rescinded and for the practice to stop in the future," she said.

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

Dunn says it's counterintuitive to prohibit citizens from driving because they don't have the money to pay fines and court costs.

“Suspending someone's driver's license when they can't afford to pay their fees and fines, it doesn't actually help resolve the issue,” she said. “They're not going to be able to pay their court fees just because their license is suspended and in fact it might actually impact their ability to work in order to pay back that fine."

According to the ACLU, Florida law only permits driver’s license suspensions for unpaid financial obligations related to criminal offenses.

After achieving a victory in Marion County Court for Anthony Cummings, a homeless man who had been assessed $824 in court costs and had his driver’s license suspended in three cases of “open lodging” under an Ocala ordinance, Southern Legal Counsel and the ACLU sent letters to clerks of court in 29 Florida counties including Sarasota, asking them to lift the suspensions. Dunn of Southern Legal Counsel says Sarasota is just one of five counties in Florida still suspending licenses over non criminal violations.

In a statement, Rushing said she disagreed with the advocacy group's interpretation of the law.

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