4/6/2018Tennessee: Judge Questions License Suspension Legality
Federal judge cites right to drive as a reason to certify class action against Tennessee law revoking driving licenses over unpaid debt.
A federal judge last week suggested she was likely to strike down a Tennessee law allowing driver's licenses to be revoked for financial reasons. For the past seven years the state has pulled the right to drive away from anyone failing to pay court debt -- whether arising from an unpaid speeding ticket or court costs that have nothing to do with driving.
Since the enactment of this debt collection statute, 146,211 motorists have lost their licenses, only seven percent of whom had their right to drive restored. Two low-income Tennesseans affected by the policy filed suit in January 2017 seeking to have the entire system overturned. US District Judge Aleta A. Trauger rejected the state's request to toss out the lawsuit because the case implicates the fundamental rights of motorists.
"The use of a motor vehicle is closely tied to the exercise of rights that have been found to give rise to heightened constitutional protection," Judge Trauger wrote. "It is well settled that the Supreme Court has recognized a protected right to interstate travel. That right, as recognized in this circuit, does not generally prohibit the state from denying a single mode of transportation, such as driving, to an individual."
The state insisted that the revocation policy is an needed as an incentive to get people to pay up. The court noted that it would raise constitutional equal protection concerns if the law treated poor motorists and wealthy motorists differently. The court noted that an indigent person who loses his license could not afford to simply summon an Uber or Lyft to get to work every morning, and public transportation is generally not a realistic option in a state where 93 percent of residents drive to work.
"When the state of Tennessee takes away a person's right to drive, that person does not, suddenly and conveniently, stop having to go to medical appointments, stop having to report to court dates, or stop having to venture into the world to obtain food and necessities," Judge Trauger wrote. "Maybe public transportation will work for some of those activities some of the time, and maybe it will not. What, then, is a person on a revoked license to do? The lawful options are simple: he can simply forgo the life activities, no matter how important, for which he cannot obtain adequate transportation, or he can incur additional transportation expenses -- making himself that much less likely ever to satisfy his court debt."
The idea that canceling someone's driver's license would make them more likely to pay fails to pass "constitutional muster," the court reasoned.
"No person can be threatened or coerced into paying money that he does not have and cannot get," Judge Trauger wrote. "Unlike the power to vote, the ability to drive is crucial to the debtor's ability to actually establish the economic self-sufficiency that is necessary to be able to pay the relevant debt."
The court pointed out that this state of affairs creates an almost irresistible temptation for the indigent to drive on a revoked license and risk yet more fines and court costs. This makes it even less likely for the license to ever be restored.
"If the purpose of such a scheme were simply to lock indigent defendants into an endless cycle of greater and greater debt, it could be said to serve that purpose well," Judge Trauger wrote.
The judge certified the class action so that the case can move forward, but the state refuses to concede that driving is important in Tennessee. For that reason, the court asked for further briefing before deciding whether a full trial would be necessary. She cautioned state officials against wasting the court's time with frivolous objections.
"It is difficult to imagine what would be gained by holding a trial solely for the purpose of hauling in witnesses to authenticate studies and confirm simple calculations, all to form an evidentiary record in support of a premise that any person who lives in Tennessee can see is true," Judge Trauger wrote.
A copy of the judge's memorandum is available in a 400k PDF file at the source link below.