Federal Judge Says Tennessee Shouldn't Punish Poor Drivers for Being Poor

The state can no longer suspend poor people's driver's licenses over unpaid traffic tickets, Judge Aleta Trauger ruled.


Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Nearly 300,000 Tennesseans could get back on the road after a federal judge ruled yesterday the state can't suspend driver's licenses over traffic tickets that drivers aren't able to afford.

The ruling is a win for advocates who say a law permitting the state to take away people's driving privileges if they don't pay traffic fines discriminates against poor people.

Judge Aleta Trauger of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee agreed. In her written opinion, she said "the lack of an indigence exception has resulted in numerous poor Tennesseans with suspensions that they cannot overcome," according to The Tennessean. This has led to "both constitutional and material injuries" for poor residents that "are, or are likely to be, irreparable," she wrote.

Trauger was ruling on a 2017 class action lawsuit filed by seveal legal groups behalf of 291,000 Tennesseans who they say have had their licenses suspended over unpaid traffic fines. As Reason's C.J. Ciaramella reported, Trauger issued a temporary restraining order last October restoring two of those residents' licenses. At the time, she wrote that "taking an individual's driver's license away to try to make her more likely to pay a fine" is like "using a shotgun to treat a broken arm. There is no rational basis for that."

Trauger's latest ruling does not decide the lawsuit, but it does grant a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from suspending licenses while the suit is ongoing. Residents whose licenses are currently suspended due to unpaid traffic fines must contact the state if they want their driving privileges back, The Tennessean reports. In a statement, Tennessee's Department of Safety and Homeland Security said "it will stop suspensions of licenses, as the Court requires, and it will promptly review the balance of the order to determine the appropriate next steps."

The original lawsuit was filed last September by attorneys from Civil Rights Corps, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Just City, and the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. Several of those groups celebrated Trauger's ruling yesterday.

"With this ruling, people will be able to go to work, see their families and friends, get to the grocery store and the doctor's office, and do all of the things that many of us take for granted and that give life meaning," Civil Rights Corps Attorney Tara Mikkilineni said in a statement.

Just City Executive Director Josh Spickler hailed the impact the ruling would have on "nearly 300,000 Tennesseans" with suspended licenses. "They say, 'I wasn't able to pay the ticket, and I had to work and didn't go to court,' and a $75 ticket turns into a $200 judgement," he told WMC. "Do you pay rent the next month? Or do you pay the judgement? And it goes from there."

The ruling came three months after Trauger blocked Tennessee's practice of suspending licenses over unpaid court fines that drivers can't afford. "It's sort of the next logical step," Spickler, who worked on both cases, told The Tennessean of yesterday's ruling. "It's like an exclamation point on the previous order."

The state of Tennessee is appealing Trauger's decision on court fines. Whether or not it will do so for her most recent ruling is likely up to the state's next governor.

This issue received national attention following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As Ciaramella noted, Ferguson and other cities have used court and traffic fines to generate revenue. But civil liberties advocates argue this traps poor people in a cycle of poverty, since taking away their ability to drive means they can't make money in the first place.

The Washington Post reported in May that more than seven million people nationwide have had their licenses suspended over unpaid debts related to traffic offenses.

In Virginia, officials tried to reform the system so poor people wouldn't lose their licenses just because they were poor. But as Ciaramella reported in January, almost one million Virginians still had suspended licenses for unpaid court debts.

One such Virginian, Robert Taylor, explained the cycle perfectly. "It's kind of like my feet are cut off. I can't get anywhere," he told Ciaramella. "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."

NEXT: Poll Shows Wide Support For Criminal Justice Reform Bill In Congress

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I think this needs to be unpacked a bit further:

    I totally agree with the argument that fines excessively burden people for minor crimes, at that the license suspension system creates legal traps which result in a cycle of repercussions that don’t provide any positive benefit to society. It is also true that enforcement of these laws burdens some people more than others.

    The typical libertarian solution to this would be to drastically reduce the extent of traffic laws and to remove the requirement to obtain a license to drive. However, there is zero chance of either of these things happening.

    Therefore, there is now a situation in which laws exist which are (effectively) selectively enforced against certain people based on income levels. If the state cannot penalize people by removing a license and certain people cannot (or will not) pay the fines, does it go straight to imprisoning them? Does it revoke other licenses they may posses? Does it garner their wages through their employers to pay the fines? Or does it simply ignore the crimes because it cannot effectively enforce them?

    Essentially, is it more libertarian to allow the state to selectively enforce the law against certain people, or to excessively punish some people more than others while enforcing the law equally ? Both of these scenarios seem to be unsatisfactory.

  2. So what is reason’s sollution here? If you say poor people can’t have their licenses suspended or be put in jail for failure to pay their tickets, then poor people have what amounts to a special priviledge of breaking the traffic laws with impunity.

    If the traffic fines are unjustly high, they should be lowered. But if they are not, then people should not get a break from them simply because they are too poor to pay them.

    1. There are other ways to handle it other than either jailing them or suspending their drivers licenses, thus making it harder for them to work and harder to pay the tickets.

      1. Give those with low incomes affordable payment plans so they don’t have to pay the ticket all at once.

      2. Community service.

      3. Jailing people for failure to pay fines at a cost that’s more than the amount of the fines is insanity. A major driver for this crap is municipalities with low property tax bases trying to fund themselves via fines and court costs. But jailing the people too poor to pay at a cost higher than just erasing the fines isn’t going to get those municipalities dependent on the fines for their operating budgets anywhere.

      1. If you don’t jail people for failure to pay fines, what incentive is there for people to pay fines at all? Either these measures are backed up with the threat of jail or they don’t mean anything. Libertarians of all people should understand this because they are one of the few groups that understand all laws necessarily entail the threat of violence.

    2. One sometime gets the impression that the thinking here is to eliminate infractions by making punishment illegal, rather than having more sensible legal restrictions.

  3. why must there be fine beyond the stop itself?

    1. fines with an ‘s’. i can spel

      1. I ams fines with yer unspelling if’n ye are fines w/it!

  4. It would help to know what kind of tickets are involved here, the linked article didn’t appear to address this. Did the driver roll through a stop sign when nobody else was coming or blow through a red light, almost hitting someone?

    1. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a moving violation. A number of states suspend drivers licenses for unpaid parking tickets.

  5. We must excuse the original misbehavior and irresponsibility of the “poor” people first. Then we erase the consequence of that behavior. Then any rational person can be a judge.

  6. Why do we need driver’s licenses? No one knows how to drive these days.

  7. Get back to me if this survives appeal.

  8. So basically if you’re poor enough you can ignore a large swath of laws and people seem to think that this is progress.

    Most of the laws people are being cited for violating may either need to have fines scaled back or the laws removed entirely but how in the world is effectively different sets of rules for different people providing equality under the law for everyone? Either the laws are necessary and the fines are proportionate to the “harm” or they’re not, that doesn’t change because based on how much you have in the bank.

  9. None of this would be a problem if we just had lots more public transportation.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.