7/5/2018Federal Judge Strikes Down Tennessee Driving License Seizure
Federal court orders Tennessee to come up with a plan to restore licenses to motorists deprived of their right to drive for failure to pay court debt.
A federal judge on Monday struck down a Tennessee statute that automatically revoked a driver's license for failure to pay debts owed to a state court. US District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger considered the case brought on behalf of 146,211 motorists who lost their right to drive because they were unable to pay massive court-imposed fees and fines. Judge Trauger found the Tennessee law set up a collection method that was both counterproductive and unconstitutional.
"The fact that it is difficult to collect debts from very poor debtors is a reality faced by people and entities, both public and private, in a wide array of circumstances," Judge Trauger observed. "Indeed, it is a problem as old, presumably, as debt itself."
What the plaintiffs in this case argued was not that they did not owe the money, but that the license revocation imposed a harsher punishment on poor motorists than motorists who can afford to pay the fines. In Tennessee, 93 percent of employees use a car to drive to work, so a license revocation represents a massive hurdle to employment, which, in turn, makes it more difficult to earn the money needed to pay the debt.
"There is simply no room to doubt that losing the right to drive imposes a major economic hardship on a Tennessean, particularly if he is already indigent," Judge Trauger wrote.
In April, the court said it was likely to find in favor of motorists (view memorandum). She noted in her Monday ruling that there is nothing unconstitutional about imposing a harsh sanction that revokes the license of anyone who has proved dangerous behind the wheel because the punishment has a rational relationship to the offense. That is not the case with the law mandating license revocation over court debt.
"No rational creditor wants his debtor to be sidelined from productive economic life," Judge Trauger wrote. "No rational creditor wants his debtor to be less able to hold a job or cover his other, competing living expenses."
The court found that the state must allow a motorist to prove he is unable to pay the court debt out of poverty to avoid having his license taken away. It gave the state sixty days to come up with a plan to create a process to restore the licenses to those who had them taken away over their inability to pay fines and fees.
A copy of Monday's ruling is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.