Judge Rules Tennessee Can’t Revoke Driver’s Licenses for Failure to Pay Fines

Published January 8, 2019

The state may not revoke a person’s driver’s license because he or she can’t pay a traffic fine, a federal judge in Tennessee ruled.

The judge’s ruling could open the door to reinstating the licenses of about 291,000 Tennesseans.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger ruled in October in response to a class-action lawsuit challenging a Tennessee state law allowing officials to revoke a driver’s license if its owner does not pay a fine for a traffic violation.

Trauger’s order prevents the state from revoking licenses while the suit is pending.

In response, the Tennessee attorney general’s office released a statement saying the traffic fine ruling would be reviewed “to determine the appropriate next steps.”

In July, in a separate case, Judge Trauger ruled Tennessee could not revoke driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees. The state is appealing Trauger’s July order, though the Department of Safety has already begun reinstating licenses revoked for unpaid court fees.

‘Driving Is Imperative’

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis public-interest law firm that filed both lawsuits, says the judge’s rulings are important because Tennessee’s transportation and transit system is mostly car-based.

“In a place like Memphis, we have a ring of logistics jobs—warehouse jobs—around the city, often at the extremes of public transportation,” Spickler said. “Driving is imperative, and the judge has found multiple times now Tennessee is definitely a place where a driver’s license is almost as important as a pair of shoes.”

The state obviously has the authority to revoke driving privileges, says Spickler, but it must do so with the utmost care and not in a way that affects one group of people more than another.

“The judge said we were unduly impacting people living in poverty differently than people who are not, and it’s not OK,” said Spickler.

“I think this is insightful and accurate, and it’s a wrongheaded policy to suspend the chief means of earning an income from someone when we want some of their income,” Spickler said. “It doesn’t make much sense.”

Questions Effectiveness

The threat of losing one’s driver license is an incentive to pay fines owed, says Spickler, but there’s no indication the policy has worked.

“What we do know, because we’ve suspended hundreds of thousands of driver’s licenses, is a lot of people are no longer free to move legally around the state because their right and privilege was taken from them without any determination of why they didn’t pay,” Spickler said.

“The ability to pay was not determined before the license was suspended, and that’s not OK,” he said. “You can suspend it after you determine or consider their ability to pay, or if you find they are willfully not paying, but you can’t just automatically suspend it without this very important legal procedure in place.”

Revoking licenses is just another example of the government becoming a huge burden on people’s freedom and ability to move about in the mainstream economy, Spickler says.

“Government has an interest in keeping its roads and streets safe by having drivers duly licensed, but this is the government sort of flexing a muscle it shouldn’t flex,” Spickler said.

‘You Have to Have a Car’

Ron Schultis, a policy advisor for The Beacon Center of Tennessee, says he supports Trauger’s ruling.

“If we want people to get right with the criminal justice system and pay their fines and fees so they don’t wind up back in jail, then we can’t take away their ability to get to work and earn the money so they can pay them off,” Schultis said.

 “In a place like New York City, I imagine driving is kind of like a luxury—it’s great to be able to, but it’s not necessary,” said Schultis. “Whereas down here in the South, even in an urban area like Nashville, you have to have a car to get to work and survive.

“I guess the government thought this would motivate people, but it actually had the perverse incentive of making it more difficult for them to pay their fines,” Schultis said.

‘Very Counterproductive’

Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, says suspending someone’s driver’s license takes away their ability to work and remove the suspension.

“When you take away someone’s driver’s license, you’re not just punishing them, you are dramatically reducing the likelihood they can pay their fines,” Moore said. “This is a really weird punishment for not being able to pay their fines, because you are increasing the likelihood they won’t be able to pay them or continue to work.”

There are other bad side effects to the policy, says Moore.

“People who lose their jobs are more likely to engage in crime,” Moore said. “So, if you’re trying to do something about crime, the punishment system here is kind of designed to put people in a situation where they’re more likely to commit other crimes. This is a very counterproductive system.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.