A federal judge has ruled that Tennessee’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses merely because defendants can’t afford to pay court fines and fees. Since the law doesn’t provide an exception for the indigent, it violates people’s right to due process and equal protection under the law.
The case does not apply to license suspensions or revocations for cause, such as when defendants are convicted of DUI. It also doesn’t affect jurisdictions outside Tennessee, even though about 40 states have similar laws. However, observers say the case could be a harbinger for reforms across the nation.
The case is considered a victory for advocates for the poor, who have long argued that these policies are not only discriminatory but also counterproductive. Rather than encouraging more people to pay their fines and fees, license suspension and revocation serve to lock impoverished people out of the workforce — and any chance to pay those fines and fees.
Is it absolutely necessary to drive in order to work in Tennessee? According to evidence presented in the case, 93.4 percent of Tennessee’s working residents drive to their jobs.
Driving on a suspended or revoked license is illegal, of course, and it can also make the problem worse. In Tennessee, a first offense of driving on a revoked license can mean a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. That goes up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for a subsequent offense.
“Losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote,” reads the judge’s decision.
Between July 2012 and June 2016, Tennessee revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses because the defendants owed court debts. Only 7 percent were able to have their licenses reinstated over that period.
The case involved two men from Tennessee who are described as in “severe poverty.” In one case, the man was convicted of trespassing for sheltering under a bridge when he was homeless. He was charged $289.70 in court costs, which he could not afford to pay. When he later applied for a driver’s license, he was rejected because he hadn’t paid off his debt.
The judge has ordered the state to reinstate the driver’s licenses of all Tennessee drivers whose revocations are due merely to unpaid fines and fees. It’s unclear exactly how many people the ruling will affect, as some people’s licenses were revoked for cause, but the number could be over 100,000.
A similar lawsuit before the same judge alleges that some 25,000 Tennessee licenses have been unjustly revoked solely for unpaid traffic fines — all without a non-monetary solution for indigent defendants.