For the first time, a federal court blocked a state from revoking driver’s licenses from people who can’t afford to pay court fees, a practice that keeps many poor people in poverty.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled on Monday that it is unconstitutional for Tennessee to continue revoking driver’s licenses from poverty-stricken individuals over unpaid court fees, The Tennessean reported.
“This is the first decision in the nation to hold that these kinds of suspensions or revocations without consideration of a person’s ability to pay are unconstitutional,” said Claudia Wilner, one of the attorneys involved in the case. She predicted that it will have a national impact.
President Barack Obama‘s administration investigated municipalities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, and shed light on a system of using the police and courts to raise revenue by targeting African Americans for traffic violations. When people can’t pay, the courts add fines on top of the original amount. Municipalities also confiscated debtors’ wages and property over unpaid fines.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs or other fees from July 1, 2012 to June 1, 2016. Only 10,750 of those people had their licenses reinstated, the newspaper reported.
The law is “not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive,” Trauger wrote in her decision. “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.”
More than 100,000 Tennessee residents can now begin the process of having their license reinstated. There are similar lawsuits in several other states.