Federal Court Says Taking People's Drivers Licenses Away For Failure To Pay Court Fees Is Unconstitutional

from the towards-a-slightly-less-vicious-cycle dept

Good news out of Tennessee, via Christian Farias: a federal court has struck down the state’s modern debtor’s prison system.

In Tennessee, if you fail to pay court fines and other fees associated with an arrest or imprisonment for more than a year, your driver’s license is revoked. While it may not be as punitive as rounding up debtors and locking them up again (which obviously severely restricts their ability to pay off their debt), it basically serves the same purpose. Someone without a valid driver’s license will find their ability to earn income restricted. Driving to and from work with a revoked license just raises the risk of being fined or arrested, placing residents even further away from settling their debts with the government.

The lawsuit was brought by two men who’ve been unable to make regular payments and have been placed even further behind by having their licenses taken away. Their struggles are briefly described in the court decision [PDF]:

In short, Thomas and Hixson both live in severe poverty and both owe court debt related to past criminal convictions. Thomas is totally and permanently disabled. Hixson has spent time in recent years living in a homeless shelter after a period of incarceration. Each man struggles to afford the basic necessities of life and is unable to pay the court debt assessed against him. Because they failed to pay their court debt for over a year, Thomas and Hixson have both had their driver’s licenses revoked by TDSHS [Tennessee Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security].

The state believes this is an effective deterrent and one of the only ways to guarantee repayment of fines. In fact, a spokesperson for TDSHS has already stated that the ruling is “disappointing” and the agency is reviewing its “legal options.” This suggests TDSHS thinks license revocation works, rather than just disproportionately punishes the poorest residents of the state. The district court, however, disagrees with this assessment.

A scheme that revoked the driver’s licenses of non-indigent court debtors after one year of nonpayment would pass rational basis review, because the threat of revocation would plausibly serve as a method for coercing those people into paying their debts. (First Memorandum at 36–37.) Under the Griffin line of cases, however, the court must specifically consider whether the scheme’s lack of an indigence exception is itself rational. Revocation would not be an effective mechanism for coercing payment from a truly indigent debtor, because no person can be threatened or coerced into paying money that he does not have and cannot get. (Id. at 37.) The numbers bear that ineffectiveness out. From July 1, 2012, to June 1, 2016, TDSHS revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs and/or litigation taxes; only 10,750 of those people—about 7%—had their licenses reinstated. (Docket No. 64 ¶¶ 107–08.) If Tennessee’s revocation law were capable of coercing people into paying their debts in order to get their licenses back, it would be doing so. The overwhelming majority of the time, it is not.

This is part of the court’s analysis of the law and its legality. As precedent holds, a law that affirmatively punishes poor people for being poor is unconstitutional, as it violates both Due Process and Equal Protection principles. Tennessee’s law fits the criteria.

Under a long and well-established line of Supreme Court precedents, a statute that penalizes or withholds relief from a defendant in a criminal case, based solely on his nonpayment of a particular sum of money and without providing for an exception if he is willing but unable to pay, is the constitutional equivalent of a statute that specifically imposes a harsher sanction on indigent defendants than on non-indigent defendants.

The court’s lengthy examination of the law is worth reading — especially by federal judges in other states with laws like these. But this is the upshot: the law makes bad situations worse, driving poor people further into poverty. In addition, the state’s records show it is completely ineffective on its own terms — either as a deterrent against non-payment or an efficient way to collect on debts owed.

Ultimately, the court need not determine if the driver’s license revocation law would fail rational basis review based on its sheer ineffectiveness alone, because, as applied to indigent drivers, the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive. 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.


In short, losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote.

The court then goes on to note the cycle created by this revocation — which can lead to additional arrests and/or fines — just digs a deeper hole for the state. It creates additional debts that have almost zero chance of being repaid. It’s nothing more than doubling down on what already isn’t working.

Fortunately, there are some on the law enforcement side welcoming this ruling.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich praised the decision.

“This ruling will give relief to those drivers whose licenses are revoked only because they lack the financial resources to pay their fines and court costs,” Weirich said in a statement. “Our hope is that this will be a positive step toward rehabilitation since offenders getting their driving privileges restored will make employment more feasible. Also, it will reduce our daily caseload and allow us to focus even more on violent crimes and property crimes.”   

The attorneys for the pair of residents — Claudia Wilner and Josh Spickler — are hoping this ruling results in another favorable ruling in the near future. The pair is also suing on behalf of the 250,000 state residents who’ve had their licenses revoked for not paying traffic tickets. As it stands now, the state has sixty days to come up with a plan for reinstating all revoked licenses affected by this ruling and submit it to the court for approval. Reinstatement may be stayed during the inevitable appeal, but for now, the state cannot continue to revoke licenses when someone has shown an inability to pay.

It’s a big decision, even if its jurisdictional reach is limited to the state of Tennessee. If this is upheld on appeal, it will cover the four states that make up the Sixth District. Although this has been slightly altered in recent years, Ohio still engages in this practice. In Michigan, a state appeals court judge blocked a similar law late last year. (That decision is currently being appealed.) Kentucky is the only state in the district without a law like this on the books, putting it a step ahead of its district competition.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Federal Court Says Taking People's Drivers Licenses Away For Failure To Pay Court Fees Is Unconstitutional”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Not clear on how far-reaching

“The pair is also suing on behalf of the 250,000 state residents who’ve had their licenses revoked for not paying traffic tickets.”

That’s NOT court costs.

Losing your driver’s license for too many tickets or not paying tickets has always been the norm.

The last paragraph of the article seems to be saying that the “indigent” shouldn’t have to pay fines or fees for traffic infractions.

Frankly, if they can’t afford to pay traffic tickets, how are they paying to own, register, insure, and operate a car?

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

The article starts off that DL’s are being revoked for non-payment of COURT COSTS – much like NY and other states do for non-payment of Child Support.

Then, at the very end, it says for TRAFFIC TICKETS.

Operation of a motor vehicle on public roads requires a Driver’s License, with the understanding that if you accrue too many tickets, you will lose that privilege.

So only people with jobs should follow the law? If you’re poor you can do 80 in a 20mph zone past a school?

Here in NY, the fines and jail time for unregistered or uninsured motor vehicles are far more severe than Unlicensed Operation (no license).

This really smells like the two lawyers with that “client pool” of a quarter million people are out for cash and nothing more.

Sharur says:

Re: Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

(Note that the following is not a lawyer joke)

They are lawyers, in the United States system, which is adversarial. In the same way as they challenged the forfeiture of driving licenses for failure to pay court costs, they are challenging the validity of forfeiture for failure to pay tickets. That is what a good lawyer, that is to say and advocate, does.

Normally/theoretically, this shouldn’t be done in the courts, but in the legislature. Unfortunately, my faith in most legislatures has been shaken by the last decade or so of, in my opinion, poor decisions on most topics that I care about and directly impact me.

I should note that, where I live at least, if you truly can’t pay you can get court fees and even ticket payments either suspended, lowered or waived. On the other hand, many people seem to view many things that I have chosen to have as “things I cannot live without”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

… has always been the norm.

Yes. The system, especially in the American South, has always delighted in finding people who’re hanging onto the edge of a financial cliff — and stomping on their fingertips. Repeatedly. Hard stomps. Finger-crushing stomps. To make ’em fall off.


I suspect the system delights in that mostly out of pure meanness.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

“That’s NOT court costs.”

So what? Nothing in the article or the judges ruling ever says this idea only applies to court costs. They’re talking about any fees levied by the government against a citizen for any reason.

The last paragraph also doesn’t say anything about the “indigent” or whether they should have to pay fines or fees. I’m not sure what paragraph you might actually be referring to, but the whole point of this ruling was that taking away their privilege to drive is not an effective or reasonable punishment for not paying a government fee. That doesn’t mean some punishment can’t be used. Only that this one isn’t reasonable because it unjustly punishes poorer people over wealthier ones.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

My bad, second to the last paragraph.

If you’re unable to pay your traffic tickets, the State can’t revoke your Driver’s License.

What’s the point of traffic laws ANY laws, that have no penalty for breaking them?

I don’t agree with suspending or revoking DL’s for NON-vehicle related things, such as non-payment of child support, but for TRAFFIC infractions? YES. Get them OFF the roads.

What I find most annoying about this piece is the way it starts off reasonably, talking about court costs. Then in the second to last paragraph we find it’s (apparently) a husband and wife team of lawyers looking to cash in on a quarter million unpaid traffic tickets.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

You seem to think that the penalty for multiple tickets is merely another fine. That it not the case. Penalties go up with multiple infractions, and not just increasing fines. You can get jail time with enough infractions that are serious enough. So no, this isn’t a blanket “get-out-jail-free” card for the streets. It simply means that ONE of the possible punishments for simply failing to pay a fine cannot be taking away the license.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

Well there seems to be some contradiction in the article, though not directly. At one place they say:

"From July 1, 2012, to June 1, 2016, TDSHS revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs and/or litigation taxes"

Then at the paragraph you mention:

"The pair is also suing on behalf of the 250,000 state residents who’ve had their licenses revoked for not paying traffic tickets."

If they are separate numbers, then there are 396211 people that have had their licenses revoked and one wonders why those money grubbing attorneys were missing the extra income. Or, the second number included the first number and was mischaracterized in the description of the offences being represented. Maybe just over simplified.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not clear on how far-reaching

@Bamboo Harvester, has it not occurred to you that garnishing wages, etc., is the most effective way to recover monies owed? If it’s taken at source, it can’t be held back.

Everybody else, the indigent need not be made to suffer overmuch as the money can be recovered in small amounts stretched over a long period of time.

well-gee... says:

does this apply to Passports?

I wonder if this logic could be applied to Passport revocation as well. For us Americans who live overseas, it is exceedingly complex to comply with US tax laws and the local tax laws of the country where we reside – NOTE that we are the only country, except for Eritrea, that taxes our citizens no matter where they live. If you get into a dispute with the IRS, they can revoke your passport – the results of which are far more dire than losing your drivers license.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: does this apply to Passports?

I’ve never quite understood that. You aren’t living in the US, so you aren’t using the vast majority of the services provided by American citizenship but our government still taxes you? How does that make sense? I hope that similar to deductions of state income tax, you can deduct whatever you pay in taxes to your country of residence.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I.T. Guy, this is one of those times I’m not giving you an Insightful vote. You see, I used to work for the DVLA and for an insurance company. I assure you that the purpose of driving licences, at least in the UK, is to ensure that drivers are fit to drive on our roads and motorways.

People who are not get points on their licences, which ultimately get revoked if the driver doesn’t mend his or her ways.

The last thing anyone wants is drivers who can’t demonstrate to the satisfaction of a professional authority that they know the rules of the road and can drive safely and competently driving about causing accidents.

I actually know someone who bought a car off a friend and was driving around without either a licence or insurance. When she crashed the car she abandoned it where it was and since she wasn’t known to the police she got clean away with it. How many hit-and-runs are down to unlicenced or uninsured drivers fearing the consequences of their actions? Sorry mate, I disagree.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Freedom of movement is a right. You can walk, ride a bike, take a taxi or Uber, get a ride from a friend, or take public transit. The government cannot stop you from doing any of these things. To operate a motor vehicle on public roads yourself is something you must demonstrate qualifications for, and can be denied to you.

John Smith says:

Re: Re: Re:

It actually costs NOTHING to house the homeless. Many renters pay $700+ a month for crappy places because they can’t get mortgages that would cost them only $350 a month or whatever.

The problem is that we need to scare people into spending the prime of their lives working, which is also why we frighten people regularly about saving enough for retirement, as if we would ever discard the elderly like they did to Boxer in Animal Farm.

Drinking water is socialist. At the least, we need a Department of Drinking Water to ensure that those who can afford to pay for their own water don’t mooch off the government!

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Indeed. We need to get out of the punishment mentality and start looking at homelessness as a problem requiring a solution. Job-ready homeless housed at once would soon pay us back via their taxes. The harder cases where drugs, alcohol, or mental illness are involved require more intervention but even so taking care of them is cheaper than abusing or neglecting them as we do now.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...