If you can’t afford to pay your Tennessee traffic ticket, the state may have threatened to take away your driver’s license — or it may already have done so. If so, you probably thought that license revocation was a strikingly counterproductive way of getting people to pay debts. After all, most people in Tennessee need to drive to and from work. No license means no work, making it even more difficult to pay off that speeding ticket.
Now, a federal judge has ruled that the state law revoking driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets may be unconstitutional and has issued a preliminary injunction to stop the state from revoking any more licensees until the issue is finally decided. Moreover, he opened the door for perhaps 291,000 people with revoked licenses to get them back.
You may recall a ruling in July in which this same federal judge ruled it unconstitutional for Tennessee to revoke driver’s licenses from people who can’t afford to pay court debts. In that case, the judge said that the law violates due process and equal protection by failing to provide an exception for those too poor to pay. This new ruling builds on the older one.
Here, the judge found that, if traffic fines are an insurmountable expense for the poor, revoking their driver’s licenses does nothing to promote payment of that debt. Instead, it saddles defendants with a second debt — the price of reinstatement — that they likely can’t afford, either. The poor therefore suffer “both constitutional and material injuries” that will be irreparable in many cases.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security has agreed to stop revoking licenses at the court’s order. The agency and the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office are both reviewing the preliminary injunction to determine their next steps. The state has already appealed the July order, although the Department of Safety is still reinstating licenses under that order.
Reinstatement center may be able to help you get your license back
According to the Tennessean, there is a state reinstatement center available at 866-903-7357 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CST. Its purpose is to help people find out if they are eligible for reinstatement and, if they are, get the reinstatement process started. The number is expected to be busy, so keep trying. The Department of Safety and Homeland Security also offers reinstatement services online, in person and by mail.
No attorney is required to access these services. If you find, however, that you are still expected to pay your past-due court fees or traffic tickets, you should contact an attorney for assistance.