Over the last five years, 250,000 Tennesseans have lost the right to drive legally. That’s the result of an uncommon state law that makes license suspensions mandatory if drivers can’t afford to pay court fees and traffic fines. A new lawsuit accuses the state of violating the constitutional rights of low income Tennesseans.
Early in the morning, dozens of people have already piled into two Rutherford County courtrooms. There are more than 100 charges of driving on a suspended license on the day's docket.
Anthony Carter has been in this courtroom before. It all started in 2013, when he racked up some traffic tickets across the county line in Nashville. He couldn’t afford to pay in full so his license was suspended. But he says he couldn't afford to stop driving to his construction job.
"I have seven kids and a mortgage," says Carter. "I have to go to work."
He hoped to save enough money to pay off the tickets before he got caught. Then, he was arrested for driving on a revoked license. He says he was finally given an option to make payments — but only on the new fees.
"They make you do probation until you can pay it off," explains Carter. "Then you got probation fees, $45 a month, on top of whatever you’re trying to pay off."
But he had trouble keeping up with the mounting fees and kept getting pulled over. Each time he was arrested, his debt multiplied. The last time, he spent six months in jail.
Carter, like the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is trapped in what the attorneys called a “vicious cycle of debt from which escape is virtually impossible.”
Josh Spickler, executive director of the legal nonprofit Just City and one of the attorneys in the suit, says the current law makes no distinction between someone who won’t pay and someone who simply can’t.
"That means that people that don’t have money to pay the court debt don’t have protection simply because they are poor,” Spickler says. "We have a very, very important public interest in the state of having good drivers and licensed drivers in the street, but a poor driver does not make a bad driver."
The lawsuit highlights Rutherford County, where almost 9,000 licenses were suspended due to non payment over five years. Wilson county, with just over 4,000 suspensions, is also a defendant. The suit alleges that clerks routinely failed to inform people they could apply for restricted licenses.
Both counties, as well as the cities of Lebanon and Mt. Juliet, their clerks, and the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety are defendants in the lawsuit. It was filed by legal firm Baker Donelson, Civil Rights Corps, Just City, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. They are seeking federal class action lawsuit status.
Though most states have similar policies, a new report by the Legal Aid Justice Center highlights that Tennessee is one of only five states who are legally mandated to issue suspensions due to unpaid debt.
The state does have a new policy to get people back on the road but only after their license has been suspended in the first place. Only Shelby County is mandated to offer payment plans before the fact.
The problem, says Spickler, are the fees that come with a suspension. The payment plans include the original debt, court costs, application fees, and reinstatement costs. This can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And if even one payment is missed, the license is once again suspended, and the person becomes ineligible for another payment plan.
As for Anthony Carter, he’s finally worked out a payment plan with Rutherford County. But he still has problems in Nashville — with the tickets that pushed him into this cycle in the first place.
"They’re telling me my tickets are too old to be put on a payment plan,” Carter says. “Right now that’s holding me up from getting my license."
Carter says he wants to pay. He just has to figure out how.
The Legal Aid Justice Center says similar lawsuits have been filed in four other states: Virginia, California, Michigan, and Montana.