Lawsuit challenges TN law revoking driver licenses for those who cannot pay court fines

A lawsuit filed in federal court at Nashville seeks to void a 2012 state law that can lead to automatic revocation of driver licenses for those who fail to pay court fines, reports The Tennessean. It contends the law violates people’s rights to due process and equal protection and unfairly deprives people living in poverty of the right to drive only because they cannot pay fees.

It asks U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville to declare the law unconstitutional, reinstate licenses that have been revoked under the statute and waive reinstatement fees. It does not seek to waive any of the court fines.

The filing echoes a chief concern of some in the criminal justice system: that accruing court fines creates a cycle of debt that traps already low-income people in the court system.

“It’s just so backwards, a law like this make no sense,” said Claudia Wilner, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, one of the justice reform organizations that filed the lawsuit.

“These are not people who are running out on their debts. It’s people who can’t afford to pay, and it’s not their fault they can’t. To do that without providing them notice this is happening, without allowing them to argue they should be able to keep their licenses … those are important fundamental due process protections that are lacking.”

The issue has spawned similar lawsuits in other states, including Virginia and California, according to Wilner. But she said Tennessee’s law is unique in that it requires no notice to an individual whose license is being revoked.

The lawsuit was filed by the national center; Just City, which is based in Memphis; the law firm Baker Donelson in Memphis; and the justice reform focused Civil Rights Corps. It names Gov. Bill Haslam, Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey as defendants. A spokesman for Slatery said the office is reviewing the lawsuit.

The lawyers are seeking class-action status and name (James) Thomas and another Nashville man, David Hixon, as lead plaintiffs.

Thomas, 48, is disabled and relies on government benefits as his only income.

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