The Tennessean recently reported that a federal judge has ruled that Tennessee’s revocation of driver’s due to unpaid court costs is unconstitutional. The ruling by Judge Aleta Trauger could set a precedent for similar rulings nationwide according to a senior lawyer who works for the National Center of Law and Economic Justice in New York City.
The order, according to the senior lawyer, is expected to affect over 100,000 people. Drivers convicted of crimes (not traffic tickets) can now apply to have their Tennessee driver’s license reinstated.
Not having a license may be manageable in some city locations but in most Tennessee cities and rural areas, not having a car also means not being able to buy food or take children to schools. Losing your license often means losing your job – and the ability to pay any court costs you have incurred along the way. Even in cities, the costs of public transportation can be prohibitive and impractical, and this rule has always disproportionately affected families with lower incomes. Many drivers risk being stopped and arrested rather than forego their job or ability to function. This risk comes with the constant worry, often realized, that the driver will be caught.
The judge made the ruling after efforts at reforming the criminal justice system had failed.
Why court fees are such a burden
Judge Trauger found that for many drivers the court costs were just overwhelming. Court costs can run hundreds or thousands of dollars. In some cases, the amount in dispute in the underlying crime could be less than the amount of the fines. The driver revocation law (for failure to pay court cases) includes petty crimes. The judge found that the revocation laws were counterproductive. The punishment simply didn’t fit the crime.
Judge Trauger was persuaded by a study that showed the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security revoked more than 146,000 licenses between 7/1/2012 and 6/1/2016 for nonpayment of costs, fines, and fees. Only .07 – a little under 11,000 of those licenses – were reinstated.
A second lawsuit is in the works. The aim of this lawsuit, already approved as a class action, is to stop the revocation of licenses for traffic offenses. More than a quarter-million Tennesseans can’t drive due to tickets that have been unpaid since 2012. Judge Trauger may decide this case by the year’s end.
Other states are expected to take note of Judge Trauger’s decision. Similar class actions across the country to stop the revoking of licenses due to unpaid criminal court costs are expected.
If you were charged with a crime in Tennessee, there are often defenses. Our lawyers have been fighting for the accused for more than 20 years. The Sevierville criminal defense attorneys at Delius & McKenzie, PLLC have the experience and resources you need. Call us at (865) 428-8780 or compete our contact form to schedule a free consultation today. We represent defendants in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge.