MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Federal Judge Rules Against Suspending Poor People's Driver's Licenses for Unpaid Court Fines

"[A]s applied to indigent drivers, the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive."

Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/NewscomJim Weber/ZUMA Press/NewscomA federal judge has blocked Tennessee's practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fees without first determining if the debtors are too poor to pay. The policy, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled yesterday, violates poor residents' due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

"[A]s applied to indigent drivers, the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive," Trauger wrote. "If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver's license away sabotages that prospect."

Trauger ordered the state to cease suspending licenses for unpaid court debts and to give all residents who had their licenses suspended for such reasons an opportunity to have them reinstated.

License suspensions for unpaid court fines, drug violations, and other non-moving violations came into the spotlight in 2014 following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Investigative reporting revealed the town's rapacious use of fines and fees to generate revenue, sparking a nationwide look at how cities use petty fines and fees.

Many states across the U.S. passed license suspension laws to go after scofflaws, but civil liberties groups say they often trap poor residents in a debt spiral by depriving them of the means to make money in the first place.

The two lead plaintiffs of the case, James Thomas and David Hixson, were physically disabled and living in a homeless shelter, respectively. Both had their licenses suspended for unpaid court fines.

States across the country have suspended more than 7 million licenses, according to The Washington Post. Virginia alone suspends 900,000 licenses—11 percent of its total population—at any given time for unpaid fines and fees.

Tennessee suspended 146,211 licenses for unpaid court fines and fees between 2012 and 2016, according to the lawsuit. That doesn't include suspensions for unpaid traffic fines.

Trauger's decision was not a surprise. The judge lambasted the state's policy in earlier decisions in a parallel case challenging suspensions for unpaid traffic fines—one commanding Tennessee to immediately reinstate the licenses of two lead plaintiffs, and the other allowing the lawsuit to proceed as a class action.

In both, Trauger wrote that the practical effects of Tennessee's license suspension policies appeared to be at complete odds with the rules' stated purpose—that is, collecting debt.

"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," the judge wrote last year.

Trauger noted that Tennessee towns and cities are "pervasively structured" around motor vehicles, and that one didn't need "reams of expert testimony to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources."

In January, another federal judge in Michigan enjoined the practice when it is applied to the very poor, ruling that suspending licenses without determining the debtors' ability to pay likely violates due process.

A lawsuit challenging Virginia's policy was dismissed on technical grounds last year but still spurred the state to reform its practices. Nevertheless, Virginia still suspended nearly 1 million licenses last year.

The Tennessee lawsuit was brought by Civil Rights Corps, a group challenging bail policies and license suspensions in several states, as well as by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Just City, and the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.

"This is an incredible victory for low-income Tennesseans whose contact with the criminal system leaves them saddled with court debt and unable to get around in a state that lacks adequate public transportation​," Civil Rights Corps founder Alec Karakatsanis said following the ruling. "Today, one immense barrier to escaping the cycle of poverty and criminalization has been removed​—people will be able to go to work, see their families and friends, get to the grocery store and doctor's office, and do all of the things that we all take for granted and that give life meaning.​"

Photo Credit: Jim Weber/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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 Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Longtobefree||

    Next up; prison instead of fines - - - - -

    "unintended consequences"

  • Echo Chamber||

    Pay or stay is already a thing

  • Robert||

    Now, see, if they can do this, they won't need a driver's license to pay the fines.

  • TeamsterX||

    Correct me if wrong, if so called poor person cannot afford to pay the ticket, they should not be driving?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Why is $300 for a speeding ticket reasonable?

    Lower fines and cut off the money making scheme for government.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    A federal judge has blocked Tennessee's practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fees without first determining if the debtors are too poor to pay. The policy, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled yesterday, violates poor residents' due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

    This is an area I have a real hard time with.

    As a (g)Libertarian, the use of fines and fees by the state to cripple your residents doesn't sit well. But when we create two justice systems, one for "poor" and another for everyone else, that's no longer "equal protection". Now we've got a group of people who are a little more equally protected than everyone else. I don't have the answers here-- beyond eliminating fines altogether which essentially makes the rules null and void.

  • Longtobefree||

    "beyond eliminating fines altogether which essentially makes the rules null and void."

    Not really; jail for everyone, no fines. Keep the sentences short to avoid overcrowding. Equality itself.
    One more tweak. Only make really bad stuff illegal. You know, physically hurting other people, taking stuff by force.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Only make really bad stuff illegal. You know, physically hurting other people, taking stuff by force.

    I'm not against this in theory, although I live at ground zero where they stopped enforcing certain rules and man, shit can get out of hand really fast.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Whats' your feeling on percentage fines with a cap? Caught speeding pay .001 of your last years income and cap it at $200.00. It keeps the equal protection aspect in law (everyone pays the same percentage up to max fine) but acknowledges that we don't have equal economic outcomes (as we shouldn't).

  • perlchpr||

    As long as there's an appeal mechanism in place for people who have lost their jobs.

    My 2017 income was $65k. My 2018 income to date is $0.

    Then again, I'm also driving a lot less...

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Fines are way too excessive. $5 for every driving offense and $5 for misdemeanor bail and $10 for felony bail. This should not be a money making venture for government.

  • Fats of Fury||

    If you're too poor to pay your court fines maybe you shouldn't be running up your court fines. How about we deduct the fines from the judge's pay. The poor can always pay her back later.

  • Brian||

    "the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive,"

    And I would encourage all federal judges to go nuts with that as a basis do constitutionality.

    Maybe, with persistent effort, over many decades, we might have something that approaches sanity.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    A judge from Tennessee finding fault in an authoritarian law or practice? That was difficult to understand, until a quick check indicated she is a Democrat.

    The Michigan judge who ruled for liberty? Also nominated by a Democratic president.

    The liberal-libertarian alliance, making America great.

  • retiredfire||

    Yes, liberals and libertarians don't want laws enforced. It is why they are either losing or never had widespread support in the U.S.
    Both of these judges are your typical progressive.

    "Progressive is what communists call themselves, when they don't want to admit they are communists."
  • Empress Trudy||

    I'm surprised that Reason so much as believes we should even have driver's licenses at all

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You never needed an license To ride a horse and cerTainly dont need a license To walk.

    Drivers licenses were a scam to institute a national ID.

  • Rat on a train||

    violates poor residents' due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment
    Sounds more 8th Amendment.

  • BambiB||

    Ran into something like this when I refused to license my dog. I decided not to send the $5 to an outfit in Texas so they could skim $2 and send $3 back to the county where I live in Florida. My reasoning was simple: The ordinance requires the licensing of all "rabies-susceptible animals" - while making exceptions for some livestock. But here's the point: I inoculated my dog against rabies, so my dog wasn't rabies-susceptible. So no license required.

    Of course, the city pulled the trigger using Florida law to suspend my driver's license. When I found out, I picked up the phone, contacted the animal control morons and let them know that unless my license was reinstated within 24 hours, I would see them in court.

    They got the message, and my license was reinstated the same day. Of course, I required the court to send me proof of reinstatement.

    I had been quite prepared to point out in court that the prosecutor, the judge and any children they might have were almost certainly "rabies-susceptible", were technical "animals" and in all likelihood had not been licensed under the ordinance. I almost wish it had gone that route. The "licensing" requirement was nothing more than a pointless cash-grab. No adjacent country has any such requirement.

    But the point is, even in a relatively free state like Florida, assholes in government feel free to pass shithead laws and routinely destroy peoples' lives until someone kicks them in the face.

  • Whorton||

    Whatever happened to that classic argument that driving is a "privilege?" As such, a state may not be required to provide it, and certainly not without conditions.

    If it follows that a state cannot suspend a driver's license for failing to abide by the conditions they agreed to, Then how can a state revoke a license if someone does not keep insurance, which is often the greatest expense of driving?

    It stands to reason that if:

    "If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver's license away sabotages that prospect."

    is held to be true, the idea of financial responsibility for drivers based on the ability to pay a debt is meaningless. As uninsured drivers and unlicensed drivers have proven repeatedly, the applicable laws do not apply to them.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Driving is a 'privilege' as much as riding a horse or walking is a privilege.

    Drivers licenses were a n unconstitutional gateway ID to circumvent the American aversion to a national ID. As we saw from the Annapolis gazette shooting and subsequent facial recognition link to drivers license pictures, drivers licenses are a government scam to get a natIonal ID.

  • retiredfire||

    Yes, I'm sure that once those multiple-hundreds of pound - thousands, even - vehicles first ran into, and over, people and property, in ways that no horse or walking human ever did, the desire to ensure that only those with, at least a rudimentary, knowledge of how to operate them was accompanied by the concomitant desire to implement a national ID.
    Definitely foremost in the minds of early-20th-century state politicians.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Even with license plates and drivers licenses, hit and run drivers get away with hurting people sometimes.

    Ive been the victim of a minor hit and run driver and chased the person down until police stopped the vehicle. I would have done the same thing if it was a horse or stopped the person on the horse myself.

  • swampwiz||

    So is the State going to give folks some form of ID that can be used to vote? The Right is always bellyaching about folks having to show an ID to vote.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online