NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee officials can't keep revoking the driver's licenses of people who can't pay off their court debts, a federal judge wrote Monday in a decision that could have wider implications for similar policies in dozens of other states.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville wrote that revocations imposed under state law when a driver hasn't paid court debt for a year or more violate constitutional due process and equal protection rights and are "powerfully counterproductive."
Similar suspensions are allowed in more than 40 states. Lawsuits challenging them have been filed in at least five states over the past two years, contending that the punishments unfairly target poor people. The Tennessee class action case was brought on behalf of two indigent men affected by the law, James Thomas and David Hixson.
"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," the judge wrote. "But taking his driver's license away sabotages that prospect."
Since the Tennessee law went into effect in 2012, only 7 percent of people who lost their licenses because of unpaid fines have been able to get them back, the group's lawsuit said. Tennessee revoked 146,211 driver's licenses from July 2012 to June 2016 under state law for failure to pay court debts, and only 10,750 licenses were reinstated, the ruling says.
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, which helped lead the lawsuit, said the ruling will improve the lives of people who can't afford court debts.
"We just think this is going to have a tremendous impact on low-income people in Tennessee because so many people have been shut out of their driver's licenses, and with that, the ability to work, to take care of their families, to visit their doctors, even to run simple errands like grocery shopping," said Claudia Wilner, senior attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. "Now, people are going to be able to do all these things without fear of criminal consequences for driving on a revoked license."
Trauger ordered state officials to submit a plan within 60 days to stop revoking licenses over court debts and lift related previous license revocations that were based solely on failing to pay court debt or reinstatement fees.
State officials haven't decided yet whether to appeal.
"We are disappointed with the trial court's decision and are considering all of our legal options," said Kelly Smith, a senior adviser in Attorney General Herbert Slatery's office.