Driver’s License Revocation Law Drives Tennesseans Into an Irrational Cycle of Debt and Punishment

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 28, 2019

The state of Tennessee revokes the driver’s license of any person who fails to pay fines, costs, and litigation taxes associated with a criminal conviction for a year or more. It does this even when the defendant is too poor to pay. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee struck down the law as violating the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection. The Institute for Justice (IJ) and the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief last week urging the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to affirm that decision and find this irrational and harmful law unconstitutional.

The law at issue, Tennessee Code Annotated § 40-24-105(b), is one of dozens across the country that revokes or suspends a driver’s license to create an incentive to pay court fines. However, the law is irrational—the state is trying to get people to pay a debt they cannot pay by taking away their means of getting to work to earn the money to pay the debt. As IJ and FFJC point out in their brief, 86% of Americans drive to work and 93.4% of Tennesseans drive to work. Losing a driver’s license often means losing one’s job or losing the ability to get a new job. Quite simply, a driver’s license is a key factor in financial security.

“Laws like Tennessee’s are often a one-way ticket to deeper poverty for people who were already too poor to pay their court debt,” said Bill Maurer, a senior attorney with IJ. “Moreover, these policies harm other parts of drivers’ lives, like their ability to access medical and child care, get their education, or participate in religious and social activities. And Tennessee does all this even though there is no evidence that this policy achieves its goal of forcing payment.”

“Suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt sanction people simply because they are poor, condemning them to a cycle of poverty and punishment few can escape,” said FFJC’s co-director, Lisa Foster. “It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s unconstitutional.”

“Tennessee’s law also harms other aspects of society,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney with IJ. “Driving is so important that people continue to do it even after they lose their licenses, which means that Tennessee is effectively encouraging them to break the law. Then the police devote their time and energy to arresting these drivers, consuming the limited resources of law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and jails.”

“The courts should recognize that laws like Tennessee’s are so irrational, harmful, and counter-productive that they cannot be said to further any legitimate governmental interest,” said Maurer. “At best, they are arbitrary. At worst, they are the criminalization of poverty. It is high time the courts strike them down and legislatures repeal them.”

The case is Thomas v. Haslam, No. 18-5766. The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will hear argument in the case sometime in the coming months.