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Judge says state can’t suspend driver’s license of defendants who can’t afford court costs

Judge says state can’t suspend driver’s license of defendants who can’t afford court costs

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A federal judge this week ruled that Tennessee must stop suspending, or permitting the suspension, of any driver’s license for failure to pay fines, costs, or litigation taxes related to traffic violations, without first determining whether the defendant has the ability to pay.

The ruling, in a case brought by attorneys on behalf of two Nashville men who had been homeless, noted that license revocation has proven ineffective in collecting the debt, in part because earning the money requires employment, which in much of the state requires transportation, and driving in particular.

The case was filed on behalf of James Thomas, a 48-year-old disabled man who, while homeless, was taking shelter under a bridge during a rainstorm and was charged with and convicted of criminal trespass. He told the court clerk he could not afford to pay the $289.70 in court debt, nor a $65 reinstatement fee, and the additional application fee necessary to regain his driving privileges.

The other plaintiff was David Hixson , 50, who resided in a homeless shelter in Nashville and worked 35 hours a week as a vehicle emissions inspector. His license was revoked in 2014 for failure to pay Court Debt resulting from a criminal conviction in Washington County. Hixson owed $2,583.80 in Court Debt plus a reinstatement fee of
$140 and the cost of applying for a new license.

From July 1, 2012, to June 1, 2016, the Department of Safety revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs and/or litigation taxes. Of those 10,750 — about 7% — had their licenses reinstated.

According to the opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger: “There is nothing inherently unconstitutional about imposing a harsh sanction, of course, as long as the government has a rational basis for doing so. Accordingly, nothing about the court’s ruling suggests that Tennessee cannot revoke a person’s license because he drove dangerously or showed himself to be incompetent behind the wheel. … Nothing suggests that the state cannot revoke a license because a person drove drunk. … Those are rational reasons to take a person’s driving privileges away. Collecting debt from an indigent debtor, on the other hand, is simply not a rational basis for revoking a license. No rational creditor wants his debtor to be sidelined from productive economic life. No rational creditor wants his debtor to be less able to hold a job or cover his other, competing living expenses.

“The state can still use the specter of revocation to encourage payment of court debt; it simply must afford the debtor the opportunity to demonstrate, first, that the only
reason he has failed to pay is that he simply cannot.”

Citing U.S. Census data for Tennessee cities, the court noted that 93.4% of workers who reside in Tennessee drive to work, and in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, 72% to 75% of jobs are not reasonably accessible by public transportation.

“There is little remaining room for dispute with regard to the plaintiffs’ proposition that, in light of the actual realities of economic life in Tennessee, the loss of one’s ability to drive is substantially deleterious to a person’s capacity for economic self-sufficiency.”

The two men were represented in a class action by Baker Donelson, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Civil Rights Corps, and Just City.



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