Federal Court Halts Practice of Revoking Driver’s Licenses for People Too Poor to Pay Court Debt in Tennessee

Posted on July 2nd, 2018

More than 146,000 people who had their driver’s licenses revoked because they were too poor to pay court debt – the fines, fees and taxes that arise from criminal cases – won a significant victory when Judge Aleta Trauger of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee, granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in Thomas v. Haslam.  The court ruled yesterday that the law allowing such revocations is unconstitutional and ordered the State of Tennessee to halt all revocations for nonpayment of criminal court debt.  People whose licenses were revoked solely for nonpayment of court debt may now obtain reinstatement of their licenses upon request.

The statewide class action lawsuit was brought by Just City, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Civil Rights Corps, and the law firm of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz.  In her ruling, Judge Trauger stated that “Tennessee’s system has the actual effect of imposing a harsher punishment on indigent defendants than on non-indigent defendants based solely on their economic circumstances” and ordered the state to submit a plan within 60 days for lifting the revocation of drivers whose licenses were revoked under Tenn. Code Ann. §40-24-105(b) and provide an appropriate process for reinstatement.  In the meantime, the state is blocked from preventing any driver who seeks to have his/her revocation lifted from doing so based solely on the failure to have paid court debt or the reinstatement fee. 

Click here to read Judge Trauger’s order and memo.

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