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The Tennessee State Capitol. Tennessee, up until recently, was among 40 other states with laws which revoke the driver's licenses of residents who can't pay court costs. Image via Wikimedia Commons/unsourced. (CCA-BY-3.0)

Tennessee will no longer suspend the driver’s licenses of residents unable to pay court costs.

The decision, effected by a Monday court order, marks the first time a federal judge has challenged state laws which penalize drivers for unrelated debts. Calling the verdict a veritable “tour de face,” attorney Claudia Wilner says an estimated 100,000 Tennesseans can begin the process of regaining their licenses.

“Practically speaking, this is going to be a huge benefit to the low-income people of Tennessee who are going to be able to drive to work, take their kids to school, go to the grocery store, visit the doctor, without fear of being arrested and prosecuted for driving without a license,” said Wilner in a Tuesday interview.

Wilner, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York City, worked the case against the state. The ruling, brought by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, marks the first time a federal judge has declared driver’s license revocation laws over unpaid court debt unconstitutional.

Trauger, calling the law “powerfully counterproductive,” condemned both its intent and the outsized effect it had on Tennessee’s most impoverished residents.

“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,” wrote Trauger. “But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.”

An analysis cited in Trauger’s ordered—reprinted by The Tennessean—shows that, from July of 2012 through June of 2016, the state suspended or revoked nearly 150,000 driver’s licenses for ‘failure to pay fines, costs or other fees.’

The same analysis reports that only 10,750 people were able to regain their driving privileges.

Among them, writes The Tennessean, is 33-year old Nathan Scruggs.

In 2013, Scruggs spent 11 months in jail after being found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Released after his incarceration, he was supposed to pay a $25 monthly fee.

Tennessee Highway Patrol car. Many residents who say their licenses were revoked found themselves in a particularly precarious circumstance: unable to keep up with monthly payments imposed by the courts and unable to travel to work to reestablish their finances. Image via Wikimedia Commons/unsourced. (CCA-BY-3.0)

“That’s a small fee,” Scruggs admitted, “but the only thing is, when you’re just getting out of jail, even a dollar is a lot to not getting back on your feet.

“It’s completely overwhelming.”

Desperate to make ends meet, Scruggs, like thousands of his fellow Tennesseans, began driving without a license. He spent several years carrying a burden he likened to a “big backpack” before receiving permission to legally return to the road.

Whether Trauger’s determination could create repercussions outside Tennessee remains to be seen. The New York Times notes that the ruling doesn’t appear to have set any sort of nationwide precedent. Indeed, some 40 states across the country retain similar laws. Of the 40, only five are considering legislation that’d outlaw the practice.

Supporters of the laws, writes the Times, argue that they’re a necessary evil, intended only to act as an incentive to repay the courts for costs incurred during trial or as a penalty.

“If we don’t suspend driver’s licenses, then people will say, ‘I’m not going to pay the fine,’” said Virginia state Sen. Bill Carrico (R). “That’s a slippery slope.”

A similar case in Virginia, recently revived by a successful appeal, offers hope for the millions residents of the Old Dominion who’d had licenses revoked. Judge Roger Gregory, chief justice of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, condemned that law for failing to distinguish between people unwilling to pay those and unable to.

“By suspending the licenses of those who cannot pay for reasons outside of their control, the state traps thousands of Virginians in a nightmarish spiral for which there is no apparent exit,” wrote Gregory.

But no matter the progress being made by states like Tennessee and Virginia, experts say the ‘slippery slope’ narrative espoused by Sen. Carrico is likely to hold the greatest sway with legislators elsewhere.

Sources

Being Poor Can Mean Losing a Driver’s License. Not Anymore in Tennessee.

Drivers Challenge License Suspensions for Unpaid Court Debt

Judge: Tennessee can’t revoke driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay court costs

Tennessee will reinstate driver’s licenses after judge’s ruling, but problems reported

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