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Cook v. Taylor

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 1, 2019

LAKENDRA COOK, SHARON MOTLEY, Plaintiffs,
v.
HAL TAYLOR, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH WATKINS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Lakendra Cook and Sharon Motley, two indigent Alabama residents, currently have suspended driver's licenses. Those licenses were suspended by state courts because Plaintiffs failed to pay their traffic tickets. Plaintiffs say those suspensions were unconstitutional because the courts did not consider whether Plaintiffs were unable to pay through no fault of their own. Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit to get their licenses back.

         When they filed suit, Plaintiffs also had license suspensions for failing to appear in court for different traffic tickets. Plaintiffs do not challenge those suspensions. And those suspensions mean that the court cannot give Plaintiffs what they want: the reinstatement of their driver's licenses. And since the court cannot give Plaintiffs what they want, they lack standing to bring this suit.

         Plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction (Doc. # 2) to prohibit Defendant Hal Taylor, head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), [1] from enforcing an Alabama rule that authorizes state courts to suspend indigent individuals' driver's licenses without finding that they willfully refused to pay. Plaintiffs also seek an order requiring the State to reinstate licenses suspended under this rule. Finally, Plaintiffs move to certify a class of similarly situated individuals. (Doc. # 4.) The State moved to dismiss (Doc. # 20) on jurisdictional grounds as well as on the merits. This opinion addresses those motions.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         Because this case involves a constitutional challenge to state actions, subject-matter jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question). The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         An attack on subject-matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) may be either a facial attack or a factual attack. Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990). A facial attack simply challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's jurisdictional allegations, which are taken as true. Id. at 1529 (quotation omitted). Factual attacks, however, challenge “the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits, are considered.” Id. (quotation omitted). The State attacks Plaintiffs' standing based on their separate license suspensions for failing to appear in court. This is a factual attack on jurisdiction that requires the court to look beyond the allegations of the complaint and to the evidence presented by the parties. See MSPA Claims 1, LLC v. Tenet Fla., Inc., 918 F.3d 1312, 1318-19 (11th Cir. 2019). Thus, in deciding the motion, the court has reviewed all the evidence presented by the parties.

         III. BACKGROUND

         A. Alabama's Driver's License-Suspension Scheme

         1.Receiving a Traffic Ticket

         Alabama police officers are required by statute to use a uniform traffic ticket. See Ala. Code § 12-12-53(a). That statute is implemented by Alabama Rule of Judicial Administration 19(A), which is promulgated by the Alabama Supreme Court. Rule 19(A) provides what each traffic ticket must contain and includes the standard ticket form, called Form UTTC-1. Prior to November 30, 2018, Form UTTC-1 (Series N) was the standard traffic ticket throughout the state. (Doc. # 20-4, at 2.)

         The Series N ticket has a section entitled “NOTICE, ” which gives “INSTRUCTIONS TO THE DEFENDANT.” (Doc. # 20-4, at 14.) The notice states that the defendant must appear in court on a given date unless she has already settled the case. If the defendant fails to appear, the Department of Public Safety will be notified to suspend her license. (Doc. # 20-4, at 14.) Series N does not give notice that defendants who fail to pay their fines are subject to license suspension. (Doc. # 20-4, at 3.)

         2. The State's Changes to the Traffic Ticket System

          On January 26, 2018, the Standing Committee on the Alabama Rules of Judicial Administration recommended that the Alabama Supreme Court amend Rule 19(A) and the UTTC-1 ticket to include language notifying persons who received traffic tickets that their license is subject to suspension for failure to pay fines or enter into a court-approved payment plan. (Doc. # 20-4, at 3.) On May 9, 2018, the Alabama Supreme Court entered an order amending Rule 19(A) to include the Standing Committee's proposed language. (Doc. # 20-4, at 3.)

         On August 10, 2018, the Standing Committee recommended that the court adopt an updated Form UTTC-1 that includes: (1) the new notice language already approved by the court; and (2) several corrective changes, such as replacing references to the “Department of Public Safety” with the “Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.” (Doc. # 20-4, at 4.) Form UTTC-1 (Series P) contains the additional notice language approved by the court in the amendments to Rule 19(A). (Doc. # 20-4, at 3.)

         Form UTTC-1 (Series P) was approved by the Alabama Supreme Court on November 30, 2019, eleven days after this lawsuit was filed. (Doc. # 20-4, at 4.) Series P is now the operative uniform traffic ticket in Alabama.

         3. Courts' Authority to Impose Fines and Suspend Licenses

         a. Courts' Authority to Impose Fines

         Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 26.11 governs fines and restitutions in state courts.[2] Rule 26.11(b) provides that courts, in deciding whether to impose a fine, “should consider” five factors, including “the financial resources and obligations of the defendant and the burden that payment of a fine will impose, ” as well as the “ability of the defendant to pay a fine forthwith on an installment basis or on other conditions to be fixed by the court.” Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11(b)(2), (3) (emphasis added).

         If the defendant fails to pay a fine, the court “may inquire and cause an investigation to be made into the defendant's financial, employment, and family standing, and the reasons for nonpayment of the fine, ” including whether nonpayment “was contumacious or due to indigency, ” - that is, whether the defendant willfully chose not to pay or was simply too poor. Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11(g) (emphasis added). The words should and may, when read in their ordinary sense, mean that courts are not required to consider the indigency of the defendant in deciding whether to impose a fine or in determining why a fine has not been paid.[3]

         b. Courts' Authority to Suspend Driver's Licenses

         When a court imposes a fine for a traffic violation, it “may suspend” the defendant's driver's license “upon a failure of a defendant to comply with the order of the court” - that is, when the defendant fails to pay the fine. Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11(i)(3). And the license “may remain suspended until the total amount of the fine” has been paid. Id.

         4. Implementing Court-Ordered Suspensions

         To effectuate a license suspension, the court sends a form, called a UTC-25, to the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).[4] (Docs. # 6-3, at 3.) That form contains a box that the judge or clerk must check certifying that the defendant was ordered to pay a fine and failed to pay. (Doc. # 6-2.) ALEA then mails a notice to the defendant that her license has been suspended. (Doc. # 6-4.)

         If a defendant receives a traffic ticket and fails to show up on her court date, a separate provision governs. Upon receiving “written notice from the court” that the defendant failed to appear, ALEA “shall suspend the driver license and driving privilege of the defaulting driver until ...


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