Judge overturns driver's license revocations tied to failure to pay court debt

Following a federal court order, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is reinstating driver’s licenses for people whose driving privileges were revoked solely for failure to pay court debt under state law.

People who have other revocations or suspensions on their record will need to handle those separately before their license can be reinstated, according to department spokeswoman Megan Buell.

Those who think their license could be reinstated based on the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger should contact the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security customer service center at 866-903-7357.

“We are doing our best to accommodate our customers. We appreciate everyone’s patience as we attend to this matter and work through the process,” Buell said.

In a ruling that could affect tens of thousands of people, Trauger ordered Tennessee to halt its practice of revoking driver’s licenses of people too poor to pay their court debt such as fines, fees and court costs.

From July 2012 until June 2016 alone, the state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fine, costs and litigation taxes, and since then only 10,750 of those people – about 7 percent – had their licenses reinstated, according to information in the judge’s ruling.

“If Tennessee’s revocation law were capable of coercing people into paying their debts in order to get their licenses back, it would be doing so. The overwhelming majority of the time,” it is not,” Trauger wrote in her ruling as she granted summary judgment in the favor of plaintiff who sued the state.

Trauger found those revocations to be unconstitutional and ordered the state to halt them, requiring Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey to submit a plan within 60 days for lifting revocations under the state law and setting up a process for automatic reinstatement of a license for any driver who faces no other obstacle than the revocation for failure to pay court debt.

“The court’s decision will have tremendous impact for people across the state of Tennessee,” said Premal Dharia, director of litigation at Civil Rights Corps, which brought the statewide class action lawsuit with Memphis-based Just City, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. “Whether a person lives in Nashville or rural communities in Tennessee, a motor vehicle is central to daily life. In the federal court’s own words, ‘Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money.’”

More than 92 percent of people who live in and around urban areas drive to work, according to undisputed facts in the order.

Dharia pointed out the recent court victory for poor Tennesseans “ensures” the organizations “will continue to challenge unjust laws that criminalize poverty throughout Tennessee and nationwide.”

Just City, which has been contacted by dozens of people about the potential for reinstatement, set up a web form at dllawsuit.justcity.org, according to Josh Spickler, executive director of the organization.

“This ruling recognizes that Tennessee’s practice of blindly suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court debt is unfair, senseless and ultimately destructive. For too long, Tennesseans living in poverty have faced impossible economic choices and been driven into an endless cycle of debt because of this irrational policy,” Spickler said. “We celebrate the mobility, productivity and economic independence this decision will bring to tens of thousands of our hardworking friends and neighbors.”

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying it is “disappointed” in the trial court’s decision and considering all legal options.

Filed in January 2017 in the name of indigents James Thomas and David Hixson, the lawsuit contends the license revocations aren’t part of the punishment for traffic-related infractions but relate solely to debt collection. Trauger’s order notes they didn’t challenge the state law in order to get out of the debt or to dispute the state’s right to put sanctions on those who refuse to pay even though they can afford it. Instead, the judge found their lawsuit targets the state system because it placed harsher punishment on indigent defendants than on people who can afford to pay.

Trauger’s ruling points out a person without the resources to pay debt can’t be “threatened or cajoled into paying,” though he might be able to pay in the future.

Furthermore, she noted, taking a person’s license “sabotages” his ability to pay debt. Losing a driver’s license makes “burdens of life more expensive” and renders the prospects of building those resources more difficult.

License revocation based on court debt from one conviction also can start a “cycle” of convictions and court debt making it more difficult for a person to renew their license, the judge found.

Legislative view

State Rep. William Lamberth, a Portland Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, said he anticipates the Legislature would await the final outcome and a potential appeal before taking any action. He had not read the judge’s order.

“This is something we have looked at over the last couple of years in the Legislature, balancing how to ensure folks pay their due and actually satisfy any financial requirements of a sentence that might be dealt out and at the same time kind of measure that with the need of folks to be able to drive to do so,” Lamberth said.

Democrat Rachel Mackey, who is challenging Lamberth in the November election, said she believes Trauger made the correct decision in finding the law unconstitutional.

“For Tennesseans struggling to make ends meet, the loss of a driver’s license can be a barrier to finding and maintaining employment, compounding their hardship,” Mackey said in a statement. “These laws are being challenged in jurisdictions across the country, and Judge Trauger’s lengthy and well-reasoned memorandum referenced in her order will provide good direction to other jurists.”

Rep. Mike Sparks, a Smyrna Republican, said he tends to agree with the judge’s order and noted he asked the Department of Safety and Homeland Security “why we take people’s licenses and keep them from becoming productive citizens.”

Sparks pointed towards the Fresh Start Act passed in 2017 as a step forward in this area. That law prohibits state occupational and licensing boards from denying licenses because of someone’s criminal record unless their conviction is directly connected to their ability to do the job. For instance, someone convicted of securities fraud could not be licensed to be a stockbroker.

Smyrna Town Council member Tim Morrell, who is running against Sparks in the Aug. 2 Republican primary, said he believes the Legislature will need to take up the matter and reach a consensus next year.

“When you revoke somebody’s driver’s license it hampers or prevents them from getting to work to pay fines and court costs, so I’m not sure how effective it from that standpoint,” Morrell said.

The lawsuit is similar to another case in which Johnny Gibbs and Fred Robinson of Murfreesboro and Ashley Sprague of Lebanon filed suit last year against Purkey, Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell, Rutherford County, Wilson County Circuit Court Clerk Debbie Moss, Lebanon Municipal Court Clerk Corey Linville, Mt. Juliet City Court Clerk Susan Gaskill, Wilson County and the cities of Lebanon and Mt. Juliet.

Harrell said she is waiting for the state to tell her how to handle the matter.

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