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When being poor means losing your license

July 6, 2018

According to this article in the New York Times, about 40 states have laws that allow states to suspend or revoke licenses of drivers who are unable to pay overdue court costs or traffic fines.

In Tennessee, at least, that practice is about to come to an end.

On Monday, federal district court judge Aleta Trauger, citing the law’s failure to provide an exception for people who were too poor to pay off court debts even if they wanted to, ruled that the law violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that has fought against these laws, more than four million drivers have lost licenses over failure to pay court debts or traffic fines in just five states: Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Nationwide, as many as 10 million Americans currently have licenses revoked or suspended solely because they do not have the ability to pay these costs.

Not only are these laws unconstitutional, they are terrible public policy: if you want someone to pay off a fine, the last thing you want to do is take away their means of making a living. In Tennessee, 93.4% of workers who reside in the state drive to work. The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016, and only about 7% of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.

One of the plaintiffs in the Tennessee case was 48-year-old James Thomas, who 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.

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