A federal judge in Nashville has ordered the state to reinstate driver's licenses for more than 146,000 Tennesseans who lost them because they couldn't pay their court fees.
Judge Aleta Trauger says taking away people's driver's licenses for non-payment of fines means that low-income drivers suffer harsher punishments than their better-off counterparts.
Losing a driver's license can make it difficult to maintain employment, she says. That means temporary suspensions often become permanent, because those who've had their licenses revoked struggle to earn the money needed to pay off their court debt.
"It does not require reams of expert testimony to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources," she wrote, adding that driving is "a virtual necessity for most Americans."
Trauger gave the Tennessee Department of Safety 60 days to come up with a plan for reinstating driver's licenses revoked for unpaid court fees. In some cases, Trauger says, those licenses could be reinstated automatically.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office says they're "disappointed with the trial court's decision and are considering all of our legal options."
The class action suit was filed on behalf of two men living in what the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee characterized as "severe poverty." James Thomas is permanently disabled; David Hixson has been homeless.
Their suit challenged a 2012 law that calls on the Department of Safety to suspend the driver's license of anyone who falls more than a year behind on paying court fees. Allowances are supposed to be made for people who are too poor to pay, but the court determined that, in reality, few succeed in getting their licenses reinstated.
Over a four-year period beginning in July 2012, more than 146,211 people had their license suspended for failing to pay fines, according to the Dept. of Safety. Of those, only 10,750 have gotten their license back.
The ruling applies only to Tennessee. But, coming from a federal court, the ruling could serve as precedent for similar laws to be overturned in other states, attorneys for Thomas and Hixson say.
"Tennessee is part of a broken criminal system that all too often punishes people who cannot pay," says Claudia Wilner, senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. "These driver’s license revocations occurred without basic constitutional protections."