Tennessee's practice of suspending licenses from those who owe court fees is found unconstitutional

Lakesshia Thomas, 24, had to sit down with her 6-year-old daughter and explain why they had to start taking the bus.

“I had to keep it real with her. I told her we had to obey the law so the police won’t take me away from her.”

Thomas’ license had been suspended earlier in 2018 after she had a car accident and didn’t have her license and proof of insurance with her. Thomas, a Memphian, couldn’t pay the $160 court fee to face the charge.

“Between rent, utilities, car insurance and caring for my daughter an expense I will always have I just couldn’t sacrifice the fines. So they suspended my license.”

Thomas is one of the hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans with a suspended license who can now breathe a sigh of relief.

On July 2, U.S. District Attorney Judge Aletra Trauger determined Tennessee can no longer revoke driver’s licenses from people who cannot afford court fees and the law that permitted such action was unconstitutional.

Thomas first heard of the ruling while talking to High Ground News.

“I just heard about this. As soon as we get off the phone, I’m calling customer service.”
 

Criminalizing People in Poverty

$160 seems small, but to people like Thomas and the 27 percent of Memphians living in poverty, it’s the difference between feeding a child or paying for a utility bill.

“I would ask people for help, but everybody I know is trying to keep their head above water themselves. I can’t ask anyone for money when they’re struggling to pay their own bills. It’s hard out here,” said Thomas.

In 2012, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security began the practice of revoking driver’s licenses from any person who failed to pay fines, court costs, and taxes for a year or more. Between July 3013 and June 2016, Tennessee revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts.

Only seven percent had their license reinstated after making payments within the same period. 

Chris Martin, the former assistant Shelby County public defender, said the law is counterintuitive to its initial purpose of applying pressure to collect money.

“It caused a big burden for criminal court clerk offices to track down and keep track of all the people who were behind on paying fines. We’re literally talking about people with petty misdemeanor offenses are having to pay hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to live, work and support themselves and their families.”

The difference between a fine and a court cost is which government group receives the money. Fines go back into the District Attorney’s office or the victim of a property offense while court costs go back to state and local agencies.

Every criminal case has fines which are administered after someone is found guilty. Court costs cover administrative fees of every case and must be paid as soon as the case is arraigned. Martin says since the enactment of the 2012 law, the collection has not improved nor has it affected the compliance of drivers.

“[Judge Trauger] hasn’t said anything about it being intentional, but we can assess that it didn’t clarify a distinction between people who were not able to pay fees and those who weren’t willing. So we have to believe that the law ignores poor people and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment,” Martin said.

Martin says one-third of people held at 201 Poplar Avenue are in jail because of they have suspended licenses and can not afford to pay their court fees. 

“We tend to see misdemeanor driving as irresponsible or someone being dishonest and even criminal when honestly, we who are middle-class forget to pay our fines every day and are not faced with the threat of having a suspended license for more than a year," he said. "It’s an honest mistake to forget to go to court because you were busy dropping your kid off at school or working multiple jobs.”

 

A New Day - with some bumps

To bring the case against license suspensions to a federal judge, Just City, a Memphis-based advocacy organization for criminal justice reform, partnered with public interest groups including the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Civil Rights Corps and law firm Baker Donelson.

In January 2017, Baker Donelson filed a suit against the state's law on behalf of two men, James Thomas and David Hixson, whose court costs were impossible to surmount. 

In the case, Thomas was described as "permanently disabled," while Hixson was stated to have lived in a homeless shelter recently after serving time in prison.

"Each man struggles to afford the basic necessities of life and is unable to pay the court debt assessed against him," Judge Trauger wrote in her opinion.

Thomas, 48, owed $289.70 in court costs from a trespassing conviction after living under a bridge during a storm and Hixson, 50, owed $2,583.80 related to an unspecified criminal conviction. Their case provoked the statewide ruling of Judge Trauger.

State House Representative Raumesh Akbari says the poverty rate surpasses 30 percent in parts of her District 91, which encompasses areas in Whitehaven, Cooper-Young and the University area as well as Memphis' poorest ZIP code, ZIP 38126. She says she believes that ceasing the suspension of licenses this will make a significant impact on her constituents.

“I’ve never agreed with punishing people for living in poverty. I have constituents who work multiple jobs and need their cars and licenses just to support themselves," said Akbari, who didn't pay a role in the Thomas and Hixson case but has authored bills meant to reduce expungements in Tennessee. "This ruling is a major step in making our justice system more just and increasing the mobility and impacting the livelihoods of people in my constituency.”

Only July 6, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security sent an email communication to all state legislators announcing the compliance with the new ruling and offering the customer service number for customers to start the process of reinstating their license.

                 

With the recent Federal Court order issued on July 2, 2018, in regards to the revocation of driver licenses, I wanted to share with you the Department's plan to comply with this ruling.

If a person thinks their license could be reinstated under this ruling, we would recommend they contact our customer service center to see if their license qualifies before visiting a driver services center. That number is 866-903-7357.

We are doing our best to accommodate our customers.

Thank You,

Elizabeth [Stroecker] Legislative Liasion

 

However, there have been quite a few complaints about customers not being able to get through to the system. 

“Can you imagine 100,000 people calling one number? It’s chaos and I’m not sure how the department plans to streamline that process. It’ll take time,” says Martin, who is currently a reentry attorney at Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.

 

Just City has launched an online form for people who are having trouble accessing customer service and have suspended licenses. 

Martin says someone like Thomas would benefit from this new ruling. Rather than keeping people in poverty by suspending their license and preventing their mobility, the state and local communities can improve the quality of life by improving programs and services accessible to all Memphians such as public transportation and drivers license reinstatement.

Shelby County’s Drive As You Pay & Amnesty Program allows people with suspended Tennessee drivers licenses due to non-payment of traffic tickets to pay a downpayment of the money owed on a payment plan. However, Nashville’s program waives court fees for people 125 percent below the poverty line and reinstates their license.

“I think if Memphis and Shelby County can opt-into a program like Nashville’s it could reduce this crisis,” said Martin.
 

Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Memphistravel.com. Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty. 
Signup for Email Alerts