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Judge refuses to dismiss Tennessee driver’s license revocation case

Jacob Smith • Mar 28, 2018 at 5:30 PM

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the Tennessee safety commissioner and granted class-action status for poor people whose licenses are revoked by the courts.

Trauger said in an order filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville that plaintiffs James Thomas and David Hixson are among the thousands of Tennesseans who owe fines, costs or litigation taxes after getting their licenses revoked by the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey is the sole remaining defendant in the case.

“If the purpose of such a scheme were simply to lock indigent defendants into an endless cycle of greater and greater debt, it could be said to serve that purpose well,” said Trauger. “Buy Purkey, to his credit, does not assert that the state of Tennessee or his department has any legitimate interest in building inescapable debt traps for indigent Tennesseans. Purkey, rather, claims his department’s policies are in furtherance of debt collection. Toward that end, it is hard to set the policies of rationally calculated.”
Trauger further said the revocation of a driver’s license from people in debt to the state only serves to keep them from paying it off as they do not have the ability to go to work.

“The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning,” she said. “Being unable to drive is the equivalent of a recurring tax or penalty on engaging in the wholly lawful ordinary activities of life – a tax or penalty that someone who was convicted of the same offense, but was able to pay his initial court debt, would never have been obligated to pay. When the state of Tennessee takes away a person’s right to drive, that person does not, suddenly and conveniently, stop having to go to medical appointments, stop having to report to court dates or stop having to venture into the world to obtain food and necessities.”

Premal Dharia, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, the firm representing the plaintiffs, said the practice of revoking driver’s licenses for debt is “unconstitutional.”

“The law we’ve challenged is unjust and punishes people for poverty in Tennessee,” said Dharia.

Trauger said the “revocation scheme” may be rational if only applied to those capable of paying but unwilling to do so.

“That connection, though, falls apart where indigent debtors are concerned,” said Trauger. “Visiting a harsh consequence on someone who, through no fault of his own, is unable to make the payment sought will not make [payment] suddenly forthcoming.”

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