Judge: Tennessee can’t revoke driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay court costs

It’s unconstitutional for the state of Tennessee to continue revoking driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay court costs, a federal judge determined Monday.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger will have broad national and state ramifications, said Claudia Wilner, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York City who worked on the case.

Calling Trauger’s ruling a “tour de force,” Wilner said the order means more than 100,000 people in Tennessee can start the process today of regaining their driver’s license.

“Practically speaking, this is going to be a huge benefit to the low-income people of Tennessee who are going to be able to drive to work, take their kids to school, go to the grocery store, visit the doctor, without fear of being arrested and prosecuted for driving without a license,” Wilner said in an interview Tuesday.

“Many, many people who have been unable to find work are going to be free to go back to work again.”


Court fees can be ‘completely overwhelming’

Court fees fuel the criminal justice system but are a significant burden for many people. Someone accused of petty crimes may still face thousands of dollars of court costs; as that person fails to pay, the costs increase.

In Tennessee, a failure to pay means the state can revoke your driver’s license. In her ruling, Trauger said the law is “not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive.

“If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger wrote.

An analysis cited in the judge’s order shows from July 1, 2012 to June 1, 2016, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs or other fees.

Only 10,750 of those people had their licenses reinstated, according to the analysis.

Nathan Scruggs is one of them. His license was revoked in 2013; Scruggs spent a little more than 11 months in jail in relation to Class A misdemeanor charges and had court costs to pay.

Scruggs, now 33, remembers how he felt at the time when considering how he would pay a $25 monthly fee.

“That’s a small fee, but the only thing is, when you’re just getting out of jail, even a dollar is a lot to not getting back on your feet. It’s completely overwhelming,” Scruggs said.

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