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Court Ruling Means Thousands of Tennesseans Could Regain Suspended Driver’s Licenses

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A federal judge says the state can't revoke licenses over unpaid court fees

Thousands of Tennessee residents with suspended driver’s licenses could have their road privileges restored thanks to a recent federal court ruling.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger held that the state of Tennessee violates the constitution by yanking driver’s licenses from residents who are unable to pay court fees.

Trauger pointed out that revoking someone’s driver’s license over court debts can trap that person in a vicious cycle.

“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. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger stated in her ruling.

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According to an analysis used in the judge’s ruling, Tennessee suspended more than 146,000 licenses from July 2012 to July 2016. The state has reinstated fewer than 11,000 of those. Because of the ruling, the state has to start giving those suspended driver’s licenses back. And it has to stop taking them away in the first place.

The lawyers who brought the lawsuit that led to the ruling say a similar decision could be forthcoming on another suit. This one aims at driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic tickets. More than 250,000 people in Tennessee — and more than 7 million across the U.S. — have lost their licenses over those fines.

Trauger’s ruling could have implications elsewhere, as many other states have similar laws. State and local courts rely heavily on fees to fund their operations, and they won’t let the ruling stand without a fight. Even so, it’s shaping up to be an important step toward creating a more equal legal system that doesn’t discriminate against impoverished Americans.

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News Source: The Tennessean