Tennessee Can't Revoke Driver's Licenses From People Who Are Too Poor To Pay Court Costs: Judge

The judge’s ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
The judge’s ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty)

In numerous states, by simply being poor, you run the risk of losing your driver’s license. But in a win for advocates of the poor, a federal judge in Tennessee has ruled that that state’s law violates the Constitution, according to the New York Times.


It’s believed to be the first ruling of its kind in the U.S., and stands as a huge victory for advocates who’ve tried for years to get similar laws struck down. A majority of people in the U.S. need a car to get around and keep a job; if they’re unable to pay debts for traffic tickets and the like, it could lead to their license getting suspended, thereby setting off a cycle of debt that, for some, becomes insurmountable.

Put plainly, it’s a big deal.

More from the Time:

But it still is a major victory for advocates of the poor who have targeted license revocation laws as some of the worst examples of statutes that effectively criminalize poverty, where fees and fines and bail money for even minor infractions can sweep people into a vortex of mounting debts out of which many will never climb.

The ruling could mean that more than 100,000 residents in Tennessee will have their licenses reinstated. The ruling from Judge Aleta Trauger said the state has “to find a way within 60 days to begin reinstating licenses taken away for no other reason than an inability to pay court debts,” the Times reports.

Data provided in the case showed that Tennessee revoked about 146,000 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 to June 2016, according to the Times, and only 7 percent of that total managed to get their licenses reinstated.


The story about James Thomas, one of the plaintiffs in the case, captures just how quickly the debts can quickly cause a spiraling effect.

According to evidence in the case, Mr. Thomas, 48, owed $289.70 in court costs from a conviction for trespassing after sheltering under a bridge during a rainstorm when he was homeless. He was later rejected for a driver’s license because he had not paid those fees. Mr. Hixson, 50, owed $2,583.80 related to an unspecified criminal conviction, according to the judge’s opinion; his license was revoked.


Expectedly, because we live in a country that feels it’s necessary to create and enforce these kind of laws, Tennessee’s attorney general’s office told the Times it was disappointed with the decision and is “considering all of our legal options.”

But for now, a win is a win.



While I agree that revoking someone’s drivers license for not being able to pay their fines is counter productive and just leads to a vicious circle, what would be the punitive punishment instead? Why not enforce something like community service to repay the fines owed?