Criminal Justice

Federal Judge Restores Drivers' Licenses to Two With Unpaid Traffic Tickets; May Be First Ruling of its Kind

Civil liberties groups say suspending drivers' licenses for unpaid court fines traps poor people in debt spiral. A federal judge appears to agree.


A federal judge has reinstated the drivers' licenses of two Tennessee residents, thanks to a class action lawsuit challenging the state's practice of suspending licenses for unpaid traffic fines. The suit is still ongoing, but the reinstatement is a good sign; groups representing the plaintiffs say this may be the first court decision of its kind.

Attorneys for Civil Rights Corps, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Just City, and the law firm Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz filed the federal suit in September on behalf of what they say are more than a quarter of a million Tennessee residents whose licenses were suspended for unpaid traffic fines. These suspensions occur, the lawsuit says, without notifications or consideration of ability to pay, violating the Constitution's due process and equal protection clauses.

Two of those Tennessee residents are Fred Robinson and Ashley Sprague. According to the lawsuit, Robinson, 32, suffers from serious medical conditions, cannot work, and barely subsists on Social Security payments. Sprague is a mother of five who makes under $3 an hour as a Waffle House server.

Both Robinson and Sprague accrued misdemeanor traffic fines of several hundred dollars, and when they failed to pay, their drivers' licenses were suspended. Both were also told, when they tried to make partial payments, that no such installment plans were allowed. In addition to their other fines, they must now pay another $200 fee to have their licenses reinstated.

Civil liberties groups argue that such license suspension laws, meant to deter scofflaws, instead trap poor residents in a spiral of debt, leaving them unable to drive to work to pay off their fines without racking up even more debt—and possible jail time for driving on a suspended license. A September report from the Legal Aid Justice Center found that there are currently 4.2 million suspended drivers' licenses for unpaid court fines in five states alone. Only four states, the report said, require determinations of ability to pay before fines are assessed.

In a temporary restraining order issued last Thursday restoring Robinson and Sprague's licenses, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger echoed many of the same concerns. Robinson and Sprague's challenge was likely to succeed on the merits, she explained, "because the ostensible justification for the state's lack of an indigence exception is not merely tenuous, but wholly without basis in reason in light of the underlying dynamics at issue."

"One needs only to observe the details of ordinary life to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources," Trauger wrote. "Suspending a driver's license is therefore not merely out of proportion to the underlying purpose of ensuring payment, but affirmatively destructive of that end….Taking an individual's driver's license away to try to make her more likely to pay a fine is not using a shotgun to do the job of a rifle: it is using a shotgun to treat a broken arm. There is no rational basis for that."

In a statement following the order, Civil Rights Corps executive director Alec Karakatsaniscalled the temporary restraining order "the first big step toward eradicating a system that punishes people for their poverty."

"The rest of the class action case will determine whether we can help the hundreds of thousands of others in the same position," he continued.

Since the Justice Department released a scathing report in 2015 on the use of fines and fees as a revenue source in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue has been in the national spotlight. In a "dear colleague" letter released last year, Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote that "state and local courts are encouraged to avoid suspending driver's licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety."

As Reason reported last year, nearly 900,000 Virginia residents—roughly 11 percent of the state population—have suspended licenses at any given time. The majority of those suspensions were for unpaid court debts.

A similar class action lawsuit challenged Virginia's license suspension practices, but it was dismissed on technical grounds. The state Supreme Court did announce new rules for determining a defendant's ability to pay court fees and fines, but the law—which the Obama-era Justice Department called unconstitutional—remains on the books.

In the meantime, poor residents with outstanding traffic fines are stuck with an impossible choice. As Virginia resident Robert Taylor, who racked up thousands of dollars in fines, told me: "It's kind of like my feet are cut off. I can't get anywhere. I want a job. I'll see a job, and when I find one I'm qualified for—I know I could run that store so well—but I can't get to it."

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  1. “Sprague is a mother of five who makes under $3 an hour as a Waffle House server.”
    Patently not true.

    The federal minimum wage law requires $7.25 an hour.
    If her job classification is server, the employer is allowed to pay at the rate of $2.33 an hour in expectation that tips will raise the actual rate to $7.25 or above. Should the tips prove inadequate, the employer is required to pay enough more to make the minimum wage.
    As a practical matter, if she cannot get enough tips to make minimum, she will quit or get fired.

    1. I was just going to post this. Reason knows this. They talk about this all the time. I know C.J.’s trying to make a point and this is indeed an important issue that Reason is consistently great on. It’s just that I always hold Reason to a higher standard than all the other rags out there, because they are better than all the other rags out there.

      1. Agree re the Reason remark but are tips classified as salary?

        1. They’re taxable. May not be “salary” but they sure are income.

        2. He didn’t say “salary”. He said she “makes $3 an hour” which he had to know was false when he wrote it.

        3. Unfortunately the law is often broken. Just because the employer is supposed to make up the difference does not mean they will; employees will often not push the issue as unemployment is more expensive. In areas where the wages are so low, jobs are likely to be scarce, and trust me on this, the need to pay rent can make eat all sorts of abuse.

          So it could be accurate the waiter or waitress is making so little.

    2. Oh, good, a bunch of snobs arguing over how much a server at Waffle House actually makes.

      She is poor, you dipshits! She works at a fucking Waffle House. $30 an hour wouldn’t make getting puked on by people drunk from partying all night worth it. And those kind of drunks are not the best tippers.

  2. “the law firm Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz”

    It must be fun to be the receptionist who takes calls on their office phone.

    1. If she just says the initials she would sound like that robot from Buck Rogers.

      1. Wow…..You win//////………////////

    2. BDBCB, How may I help you? (Be de Bee, Seebee!)

      apologies to William Steig

      The partners probably insist that the receptionist say all the names, though. Baker wouldn’t want people to think Bearman or Berkowitz rate higher than s/he does.

      Kevin R

      1. Having lived in DC, with its myriad multi-named lobbying firms, for a minute, I can tell you with authority that they answer, “Law Office”.

  3. That rent-seeking pays your salary, Judge!

  4. I always find these cases kind of interesting. Does this ruling only apply to poor people or is the punishment of drivers’ license suspension repealed for all residents?

    1. I don’t know, but my naive response is that it seems cruel and unusual to punish a minor traffic violation by denying the person the ability to drive to work.

      1. And if the non-fine-paying person is well-to-do, a suit for debt would seem to be the way to go, not a license revocation.

        1. To be clear, I’m not talking about DUI or vehicular homicide, which I wouldn’t count as minor.

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            Government loves me, This I know,
            For the Government tells me so,
            Little ones to GAWD belong,
            We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            My Nannies tell me so!

            GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
            Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
            Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
            And gives me all that I might need!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            My Nannies tell me so!

            DEA, CIA, KGB,
            Our protectors, they will be,
            FBI, TSA, and FDA,
            With us, astride us, in every way!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
            My Nannies tell me so!

    2. From what I remember, the Supreme Court said that such fines and fees needed to be no more than what a offender could pay. The local government cannot (legally) impose fines that he cannot reasonably be able to pay and if nothing else must be allowed to pay in installments. That’s often ignored. There have recent lawsuits over it, like at Ferguson.

      Restated, you can demand a thousand dollar fine for going 56 in a 55, but you cannot demand immediate full payment and then tell the blue haired lady on social security that the fine will doubled every month. Then seize her car or revoke her license. It’s considered the same as a debtors’ prison which are unconstitutional.

      1. It so much like debtor prison that they’ll put you in jail long before they seize your car.

  5. “Civil Rights Corps executive director Alec Karakatsanis”

    This must be Tongue-Twister Tuesday at Reason.

  6. Great. Now judges can stop states from suspending licenses for refusing to comply with a roadside sobriety test.

    1. Driving is sometimes mostly a privilege from time to time.

      1. Driving a nice car on a closed course is a privilege. Driving to work sucks balls. How dare they call that a privilege.

        1. Absolutely right. They should be taking the bustaxpayer subsidized light rail.

        2. It would be cruel punishment to force someone to drive on I95 in NoVA.

  7. Abolish driver’s licenses. Why should you need permission from the government to drive on a public road?

    1. Because they charge a “fee”.

  8. A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, some fool judge said driving is a privilege, not a right.
    Sounds like they want to go all 180 degrees on that concept.

    While I can sympathize, there still needs to be some consequence of you actions. (at least in theory)
    Perhaps the computers could automatically tag the license as restricted “to and from work or medical appointments”. Then the letter would inform the scofflaws of the restrictions. And the fee would be reduced to zero, since the poor computer does not get even $3.00/hr.

    Or, here’s a novel thought, the feds could butt out of state business. Being poor is not a pass to ignore the laws.

    1. With parking violations, there is zero Due Process and the officer never has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you parked illegally.

      Some states do a unpaid parking violation tied to the vehicle registration type deal. There is still the issue of the state needing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

      The states do not want to have anything like that going on so they set up nice online payment for non-moving violations like red light cameras and parking violations. Most of the lemmings never wise up nor say a word as the particular government collects its hidden taxes by unconstitutional means.

      1. Running a red light is a moving violation (and not recommended).

    2. Oh fuck off slaver. You’d probably say the same thing if the feds told a state to stop forcing prayer in school or shutting down newspapers which criticized politicians.

    3. You know what traffic laws are like. You know that most places the speed limit is too low for the area, that red light cameras are deliberately set to generate revenue even at the expense of safety, that registration fees and taxes are simply ridiculously high in most places.

      Yet your response is ‘well, don’t wanna be treated like a thug, don’t let your registration lapse like a thug’.

    4. “Being poor is not a pass to ignore the laws.”

      But being rich is. Monetary fines punish people unevenly. Requiring public service would be an even deterrent. Maybe have those rich bastards work in a Waffle House for a few late night shifts. Hell, I’d pay to watch that reality show.

  9. RE: Federal Judge Restores Drivers’ Licenses to Two With Unpaid Traffic Tickets; May Be First Ruling of its Kind
    Civil liberties groups say suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid court fines traps poor people in debt spiral. A federal judge appears to agree.

    Now don’t all you Big Government cheerleaders fret out there.
    This judge will be disbarred and sent to the local gulag for his malfeasance and blatant disregard for our ruling elites.

  10. Don’t wanna go to jail for driving on a suspended license? Don’t be poor.

  11. Although formally regarded as a state granted privilege, this judge has conclusively established that driving on public roads is a de facto right.

    As others posited, does this ruling apply only to ‘the poor’, or can offenders of any socio-economic level benefit from a refusal/inability to pay the fines for minor traffic offenses? A good question for the “justice” system to answer…

    1. Since the ruling specifically states that because there’s no due process nor procedure for determining indigence that that’s what makes it unconstitutional.

      When they institute a procedure to challenge the license suspension, and a procedure for determining indigence, then yes, indigent people of all income levels will be able to take advantage of this just like indigent people of all income levels can take advantage of state provided legal assistance.

  12. In NYS they can put your license on “restricted status”, which allows you to drive only to work and to a supermarket near your home. If they catch you driving somewhere else, you’re in deep shit.

    That would seem to alleviate the judge’s concerns, while also establishing consequences for lawbreaking rather than letting people off scot-free because “muh poverty”. Boo fucking hoo to the two sob stories of people whose poor life decisions I and other taxpayers are subsidizing.

    1. “Boo fucking hoo to the two sob stories of people whose poor life decisions I and other taxpayers are subsidizing.”

      I guess it’s just bitchy snobs all the way down this early in the morning.

      Fees and fines are the kind of bullshit the government uses to keep poor people poor and on the dole.

  13. Forget the fees for the ticket! I paid several tickets (all non-moving violations) when didn’t have time to go to court to show I had taken care of all the issues because I owned a business that required me to be there so I just paid the fine. A few weeks later I got a notice from the state of Texas about surcharges which came to a lot more than what I paid for the tickets- almost $1500. If you pay a ticket you are admitting guilt (I knew that part and I was so it didn’t bother me) and when you’re guilty of a crime, the state adds on those surcharges. I don’t know how they get around punishing you twice for one “crime” but apparently they’ve figured out how to get away with it.

  14. Does this mean that tips will count as salary? Income?

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