Can I Sue My State's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)?
You can, but these suits are hard to win. In general, governments and government agencies have sovereign immunity. This means that they are protected against lawsuits. Someone wanting to bring a lawsuit could not do so unless the government agency agreed to be sued.
That said, there have been a number of successful lawsuits against the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) in various states in recent years. They haven't been simple cases, like “They made a mistake on my driver's license or vehicle title." Let's look at some of the situations when people asked, “Can I sue my state's DMV?" and the answer was “Yes."
Conditions for Bringing a Lawsuit
Just to put the situation in context: you can't just sue someone because you are angry. You have to have a “cause of action"; that is, a set of facts that would justify suing someone for money or property or to enforce a legal right.
You need to be able to show the court that you suffered actual damages and that the remedy you are seeking is one that the court can give.
A lawsuit is expensive so it shouldn't (or can't) be the first course of action to resolve a problem. In the case of a motorist's conflict with a state agency like the DMV, there are procedures to bring a complaint.
Once those procedures have been followed, with no successful resolution, then it's time to talk to an attorney to see if you can sue the DMV.
Denied a Driver's License
The Alabama DMV lost a case in federal court in 2021 after it was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Alabama for denying an accurate driver's license to three transgender Alabama motorists.
The ACLU argued that the state compromised the safety and well-being of the aggrieved motorists by providing them with drivers' licenses that contained the wrong gender marker. Alabama required proof of “complete" surgery (genital and top surgery) or an amended birth certificate before it would change someone's gender marker.
The lawsuit began in 2018 and was finally resolved in January 2021 when the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled that the DMV's driver's license policy as applied to transgender people violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it discriminates based on sex. The judge rejected the government's reasons for requiring a citizen to undergo expensive, fertility-impairing surgery before they can get an accurate gender classification on their driver's license.
Misuse of Personal Information
In a Minneapolis, Minnesota case, a police officer was notified that her record on the DMV driver's license database had been illegally accessed by others. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act governs the disclosure of personal information collected by the state motor vehicle departments. In this case, it was city employees — fellow police officers — who had illegally accessed her information.
Instead of suing the DMV, she sued the City of Minneapolis and two police officers — and won. She received an award of $585,000.
Abuse of the driver's license database by law enforcement isn't a rare occurrence, but getting a case to court is. In this case, it helped that Minnesota maintains a log of when the DMV database is searched and by whom.
If a driver's license or vehicle registration record has been inappropriately accessed, you can file a formal complaint. California, for example, provides a Misuse of Record Information Complaint form listing the various agencies with which to file. In Minnesota, all complaints are submitted to the Department of Vehicle Services Data Practices Auditors.
Most states will revoke a driver's license for unpaid traffic tickets, fines, and fees. In most cases, the judge gives little consideration to whether the person can actually afford to pay the fees and fines.
The ACLU and a coalition of partner organizations in California sued the DMV in 2016 for its practice of suspending the licenses of poor people. They were successful in their initial California court case and prevailed on appeal in 2020. Their success hinged on a close reading of the state law that allowed a traffic court judge to suspend a license if the failure to pay a fine was willful.
The ACLU's position was that being too poor to pay a fine does not equal intent. Poor people were not willfully refusing to pay; they simply couldn't.
The state restored more than 550,000 driver's licenses to motorists. Lawmakers subsequently passed a bill ending driver's license suspension for unpaid court fees.
Similar lawsuits have been brought in other states, including North Carolina.
Refusal to Renew a Driver's License After License Revocation
In New York State
Aggrieved motorists can challenge decisions made by the New York DMV by asking for an Article 78 proceeding. Article 78 allows motorists to seek three types of relief:
- To compel the government agency to do something they are legally required to do (Writ of Mandamus)
- To stop the government from doing something it shouldn't (Writ of Prohibition)
- To reverse a decision (mandamus to review)
In 2012, the New York DMV instituted a lifetime ban on “persistently dangerous drivers" — those with three alcohol or drug-related driving offenses and another serious driving offense within a 25-year period. The DMV ban has been repeatedly upheld in court, but it conflicts with the rights of another state department.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DCCS) can issue a Certificate of Good Conduct to persons who have been convicted of more than one felony. In order to receive a Certificate of Good Conduct, the person needs to demonstrate good conduct in the community for a period of one, three, or five years, depending on the nature of their crime. The certificate provides relief from bars to licensing automatically imposed by the state.
It is not clear whether a DCCS certificate trumps a DMV ban. Courts will have to step in to resolve the conflict.
In 2011, a Massachusetts motorist went to court against his state's Department of Transportation after he received a letter from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informing him that his driver's license had been revoked. He learned that a facial recognition program used for anti-terrorism purposes had flagged his image in the drivers' license database — wrongly, as it turned out.
Numerous states use this program to identify drivers' license fraud for public safety reasons. When an image is flagged by the program, a person then reviews the driver's information.
The complainant was told by the Registry office that he needed to provide proof of identity. He provided additional information at and shortly following a hearing at the Department of Transportation. It was two weeks after the date of revocation that the complainant was told his license had been reinstated.
The complainant worked as a driver and therefore lost wages while waiting for license reinstatement. He sued to recover these wages and for a court order to block the Registry from revoking licenses without a hearing.
Although he had suffered demonstrable financial damages, his lawsuit against the Registry of Motor Vehicles was unsuccessful due to sovereign immunity, among other reasons.
In 2019, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that a soccer fan could sue the California DMV for rejecting his request for a specialty license plate.
The fan, Jonathan Kotler, was a University of Southern California media law professor. He asked for a vanity license plate with the letters COYW, which the DMV denied because it had “connotations offensive to good taste and decency" (COYW stands for "Come On You Whites," the color of the soccer team's uniform).
Kotler argued that the DMV had violated his freedom of speech. Lawyers for the state said vehicle license plates constitute speech by the government because everyone knows the DMV must approve the text on license plates.
Judge George Wu wrote, “It strains believability to argue that viewers perceive the government as speaking through personalized vanity plates."
The DMV settled the case in 2020. Mr. Kotler got his personalized license plates.
Resolving Disputes with State Agencies
The best way to resolve a problem with the DMV is to go to a local office and speak with a clerk or supervisor. If complaining to the clerk or supervisor doesn't work, you can submit a departmental complaint form and kick your complaint up the chain for higher review. If you've tried this and you feel you've gotten the run-around, you may want to engage a lawyer to help you deal with the agency.
If that fails, going to court is an option. This was done in the New York case of lifetime license revocation, in which the complainant's attorney filed a petition asking a judge for an order telling the government to reverse its decision.
Let's say your driver's license has been suspended by the DMV and you really need to drive in order to work. In the time it takes for a judge to make a decision, you may already have lost your job. You need to stop the license suspension right away.
You can move for what's called a "stay" of the license suspension. That puts a halt on the suspension. If you can prove a pressing need and that you are unlikely to offend again, a judge is more likely to grant a stay.
Get Legal Advice When You Need to Resolve DMV Errors and Overreach
If you run into a problem with your state DMV, there are procedures you can follow to get it resolved. If you are unhappy with the result, you might want to consider a lawsuit. Speaking with a lawyer would help you better understand your rights and your legal options. Depending on the nature of your case, consider consulting with a civil rights lawyer, a criminal defense lawyer, or a civil litigation attorney.
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