Up until recently, Tennessee drivers with unpaid court costs often faced having their driver’s licenses revoked. By taking away the ability to drive, individuals faced substantial economic disadvantages, affecting their ability to work and engage in ordinary lawful activities and many were unable to get their licenses back. If that wasn’t bad enough, drivers often had no notice that the potential penalty existed for not paying court costs. However, a Tennessee federal court has determined that it is unconstitutional to revoke licenses simply on a person’s inability to pay court costs or fines.
According to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, this practice should now be considered unconstitutional.
Here’s what happened and what it means for Tennessee drivers.
The 2012 law
In 2012, in an effort to boost revenue, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law that required the Tennessee Department of Safety to revoke the license of any driver who had unpaid court costs, taxes, or fines. From July 1, 2012 to June 1, 2016, the Tennessee Department of Safety revoked over 146,000 Tennessee driver’s licenses and only seven percent were reinstated during that same time.
Insult to injury
Additionally, when the Department of Safety received notice of unpaid court costs or fees, the Department would automatically revoke the license and mail out a notice to the driver without prior notice and without allowing for any type of hearing on the matter. The worst part about a driver’s license getting revoked with no notice is that there’s no way to know that you’re not supposed to be driving. In Tennessee, the penalty for driving with a revoked license is up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. This meant that the person who lost their license due to unpaid court costs and who was unaware of a revocation could be looking at a new charge with possible jail time and more court costs.
Federal court ruling
In a class action suit filed in the Middle District of Tennessee, the statute was challenged as being unconstitutional and the effect the current system was having on Tennessee citizens was reviewed.
Judge Trauger looked at the people who were affected by the law and saw that it was only making it more difficult for them to pay the debts they owed in the first place. These weren’t people who lost their license because they were unsafe drivers. They were people who lost their license because they did not have the means to pay court costs or fines or taxes on an unrelated matter.
Judge Trauger’s ruling declares the Tennessee statute unconstitutional and orders the Department of Safety to cease revoking driver’s licenses for nonpayment of debt at this time. The ruling also orders the Department of Safety to allow the reinstatement of any driver’s license that was revoked under the unconstitutional statute, based solely on a failure to pay a court debt or reinstatement fee. Lastly, the Department of Safety has been ordered to submit a plan within 60 days as to how it intends to reinstate all these licenses where legally appropriate to do so.
There are still offenses that can lead to your license getting revoked, and not every revoked license will be reinstated. If there is a basis, other than indigency, for the revocation, the revocation will not be reversed based on this case. If you are charged with driving on a revoked license or your license has been revoked, you should speak with an experienced attorney right away who can assist you in defending the case or who can help you navigate through the necessary steps to get your license reinstated.