Tennessee Can No Longer Revoke Driver Licenses for Unpaid Fines

Posted by Johnathan A. Minga on October 18th, 2018

A September 2017 class-action lawsuit challenged the Tennessee state law that allowed officials to revoke driver licenses if they did not pay traffic fines.  In this landmark case, the federal ruling declared that individuals who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets can no longer be penalized by having their driver licenses revoked. U.S. District Judge, Aleta Trauger, granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction that stops the state from doing so while the case is pending.

According to Judge Trauger, taking away people’s driver licenses for non-payment of fines means that low-income individuals suffer harsher punishments than their better-off counterparts. While explaining her order, she states: “the lack of an indigence exception has resulted in numerous poor Tennesseans with suspensions that they cannot overcome.” The result, she said, is that poor people suffer “both constitutional and material injuries” that “are, or likely to be, irreparable.” Losing a driver license can make it difficult to maintain employment, temporary suspensions oftentimes become permanent, because those who have had their licenses revoked struggle to earn the money they need to pay their court debt. Trauger found that suspensions did not influence whether or not court debts had been paid. “It does not require reams of expert testimony to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources,” she wrote, stating that driving is “a virtual necessity for most Americans.”

Over a four year period, beginning in July 2012, more than 146,000 people have had their driver license suspended for failing to pay fines. According to the Department of Safety, only approximately 10,000 of those have gotten their license back. This ruling applies only to Tennessee, but is likely to have national implications. Dozens of states have similar laws, and Judge Trauger’s decision may impact other cases that may be ongoing.

If your license has been revoked due to unpaid traffic fines, visit this website: dl.safety.tn.gov or place a phone call to: 866-903-7357 to determine whether or not you are eligible for license reinstatement.


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