Millions of Americans have had their driver’s licenses taken away not because they got drunk and got behind the wheel, or because they caused an accident and hurt someone: They lost their licenses because they were too poor to pay court costs or traffic fines, which can run into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
About 40 states have such laws on the books that suspend or revoke licenses of drivers. But now, a federal district judge has ruled that one of these laws, in Tennessee, violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Experts say it is the first time a federal judge has formally declared any of these state laws unconstitutional. Critics have long argued that the laws make it harder for poor people to pay their debts, because the only way for them to do so — to get in the car and go to work — means breaking the law. And if they do drive, it means even more fees piled on if they get caught.
The ruling does not affect states other than Tennessee. But it still is a major victory for advocates of the poor who have targeted license revocation laws as some of the worst examples of statutes that effectively criminalize poverty, where fees and fines and bail money for even minor infractions can sweep people into a vortex of mounting debts out of which many will never climb.
The ruling in Tennessee could mean the reinstatement of driver’s licenses for more than 100,000 Tennessee residents. A similar lawsuit is also pending before the same judge over unpaid traffic fines that have cost about a quarter-million Tennesseans their licenses. The precise number of residents who would get their licenses back is unclear because some also lost driving privileges for other reasons and would still be subject to revocation.
In a ruling issued on Monday, Judge Aleta Trauger of Nashville cited the Tennessee law’s failure to provide an exception for people who were too poor to pay off court debts, even if they wanted to.
Kelly K. Smith, an official with the Tennessee attorney general’s office, said state leaders were disappointed with the decision and were now “considering all of our legal options.” The ruling instructs the state to stop these revocations and to find a way within 60 days to begin reinstating licenses taken away for no other reason than an inability to pay court debts.
“This is the barrier that people who are poor cannot overcome,” said Premal Dharia, director of litigation for Civil Rights Corps, one of the public interest groups that filed the Tennessee case on behalf of two men, who have each been homeless and who lost their license privileges over unpaid court debts.
“Not only can you not visit family members, or go to church, or go to school, but you cannot go to work to earn the money to pay off these debts if you cannot drive,” Ms. Dharia said. Other lawyers for the plaintiffs included public interest groups Just City and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and a prominent national law firm, Baker Donelson.
According to evidence presented in the Tennessee case, 93.4 percent of workers who reside in the state drive to work.
The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016. Only about 7 percent of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.
The plaintiffs in Tennessee are James Thomas and David Hixson. Both live in what Judge Trauger described as “severe poverty” and owe court debt from past convictions. Mr. Thomas, she wrote, is totally and permanently disabled; Mr. Hixson recently lived in a homeless shelter after serving time.
“Each man struggles to afford the basic necessities of life and is unable to pay the court debt assessed against him,” Judge Trauger wrote.
According to evidence in the case, Mr. Thomas, 48, owed $289.70 in court costs from a conviction for trespassing after sheltering under a bridge during a rainstorm when he was homeless. He was later rejected for a driver’s license because he had not paid those fees. Mr. Hixson, 50, owed $2,583.80 related to an unspecified criminal conviction, according to the judge’s opinion; his license was revoked.
The court debts that lead to revocations typically include fines imposed as punishment for misdemeanors and other lawbreaking, as well as fees levied to cover the costs of probation, incarceration, drug treatment, or even the use of public defenders.
Judge Trauger criticized the Tennessee law not just because it has the effect — an unconstitutional effect, she said — of treating the wealthy and the poor differently.
She also suggested that the law is bad public policy because it has the opposite effect of what was intended — spurring more people to pay off their debts.
“Losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote,” she wrote.
Once a license is suspended, new costs can mount quickly. People in Tennessee caught driving with a revoked license can be punished with up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense, and up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each subsequent offense.
According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that has fought against these laws, more than four million drivers have lost licenses over failure to pay court debts or traffic fines in just five states: Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Out of about 40 states with laws that can take licenses away for these debts, only a few require showing that the failure to pay is willful, the group says.
In Michigan, a federal district judge recently issued a preliminary injunction against a license revocation law, though state officials say the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has stayed the injunction as it reviews the case.
In total, as many as 10 million Americans currently have licenses revoked or suspended solely because they do not have the ability to pay these costs, said Lisa Foster, a former state judge in California who was director of the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice during the Obama administration.
Judge Foster, now the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates eliminating many court fees, predicted the Tennessee ruling would be a harbinger of outcomes in legal challenges in other places.
In an interview, Judge Foster said a few states have already rowed back enforcement of these laws.
“When it is in the context of the justice system, the Supreme Court has said it is unconstitutional to treat two people differently who are identical in all respects except that one has money and one does not,” she said.
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