DC’s Clean Hands Law violates the constitutional rights of financially distressed residents by automatically disqualifying them from occupational and small business licenses as punishment for unpaid fines or fees, new lawsuit says. In doing so, it deprives already distressed families of critical income, reinforces cycles of poverty, and exacerbates racial inequalities.
CONTACT: Linda Paris, Communications Consultant for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Lparisbello1@outlook.com,
WASHINGTON, DC – The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Tzedek DC, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP has filed a constitutional challenge to the District of Columbia’s Clean Hands Law on behalf of workers punished by the law for unpaid debt to the DC Government by being disqualified from obtaining occupational and small business licenses.
The complaint and accompanying request for a preliminary injunction filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia detail the arguments for why this government scheme violates Due Process, Equal Protection, and Excessive Fines Clause protections of the Constitution. These documents also show how the current scheme impacts DC residents – in particular those with lower incomes, who are disproportionately Black or Latino – who are unable to pay their fines or fees in any amount over $100 and are, in turn, automatically disqualified from obtaining or renewing occupational or small business licenses. The problems created are both broad – anyone with such debts seeking a license to work in one of 125+ professions or seeking to start any small business is automatically disqualified, thus hurting both workers and employers – as well as deep, with tens of thousands of residents locked out under the Clean Hands Law scheme.
The suit is brought on behalf of seven individuals. Their stories are told in their sworn declarations, linked to at each of their names in the below summary:
- Medhin Ayele, Kahssay Ghebrebrhan, Fasika Mehabe, and Hiwet Tesfamichael are immigrants to the United States from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Black community members. Each is a long-time DC food vendor desperate to resume vending as soon as possible this summer, when income from vending is highest. During the public health emergencies of 2020-2022, street vendors shuttered their businesses and stopped making income from vending. However, the DC government continued to impose quarterly fees on these vendors, fees that have now piled up and, under the Clean Hands Law, have caused these vendors to lose their licenses and their ability to generate income critically needed to support themselves and their families.
- Antonia Diaz de Sanchez is also a food vendor, immigrant from Guatemala, and mother. She seeks to return to vending, but is blocked by the Clean Hands law from doing so due to a vending-related fine that she does not have the means to pay.
- Shawn Cheatham is a Black father, plumber, and U.S. Air Force veteran living in Ward 8 who, after surviving homelessness and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, seeks to open a small business in the District. His debt to the DC government arises mainly from parking tickets he got while sleeping in his car to protect his plumbing tools.
- Stephanie Carrington is a Black single mom and Ward 7 resident who earned a Master’s Degree in Speech Pathology from UDC and is licensed in Virginia and Maryland as a speech pathologist. Due to tickets and late payment fees she cannot afford to pay all at once, she is barred by the Clean Hands Law from being licensed here in DC, where only 5 percent of speech pathologists are Black.
“Not only is the Clean Hands Law unconstitutional as enforced automatically against people unable to pay, but it is actively harming the lives and livelihoods of DC residents, especially people with lower income, who are disproportionately Black or Hispanic,” said Sarah Bessell, Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; Ariel Levinson-Waldman, Founding President and Director-Counsel of Tzedek DC; and Drew Tulumello of Weil Gotshal, in a joint statement.
They added: “The human costs from being locked out of an occupation and the opportunity to start a small business are enormous, and the benefits to the District from inflicting these punishments are next to nonexistent. Just as the Court last year, on the basis of a constitutional challenge, ordered the DC Government to stop enforcing the Clean Hands Law to deny applicants from obtaining drivers licenses, our motion asks the Court to apply those constitutional principles and provide relief as soon as possible here.”
Attorneys on the case are Joanna Wasik, Sarah Bessell, and Sophia Balemian-Spencer from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; Ariel Levinson-Waldman and Josh Levin, with staff support by Raphy Gendler, from Tzedek DC; and Drew Tulumello, Luke Sullivan, Mark Pinkert, Asha Menon, and Amber Venturelli, from Weil Gotshal.
The District of Columbia’s Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for PI, and Motion to Dismiss the case, is here.
The Plaintiffs’ Reply in support of the Motion for Preliminary Injunction, and Opposition to the District’s Motion to Dismiss, is here. Also linked are supplemental declarations from Kahssay Ghebrebrhan, Geoff Gilbert, Legal & Technical Assistance Director of Beloved Community Incubator, and Dennis Corkery, Senior Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.