Driver's License Suit Moves Ahead


Just City's executive director Josh Spickler calls the policy "failed" and "destructive." - JUST CITY
  • Just City
  • Just City's executive director Josh Spickler calls the policy "failed" and "destructive."

Earlier this week, a federal judge moved ahead a lawsuit that seeks to stop the state's practice of allowing driver's licenses to be suspended for not paying fees and fines associated with traffic tickets.

The lawsuit was filed last September by Just City, the Memphis criminal reform advocacy group, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the law firm Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, and the Civil Rights Corps.

The class action suit wants state officials to immediately re-instate the drivers licenses of some 250,000 Tennessee drivers whose licenses are currently suspended because they couldn't pay traffic tickets.
  • © Tom Schmucker |
Josh Spickler, Just City's executive director, has said the practice criminalizes poverty and disproportionately affects African Americans. In Tennessee, African-American drivers are four times more likely to lose their licenses for not paying traffic tickets than white drivers, Just City said.

A recent investigation by Memphis Fox13, found that this year so far, "91% of people arrested for suspended licenses in Memphis are black."

In a ruling Monday, United States District Judge Aleta Trauger allowed the groups to
certify a statewide class of plaintiffs.

"This will allow us to get into the specific ways that this practice works and suggest ways to fix it," Spickler said Friday. "We will also be able to describe the very specific ways that it harms people. People who are affected in similar ways will have their cases considered together, even if we don't know all of their names.

"Class action litigation is very powerful because harm and unfairness are addressed for everyone who is impacted and not just a few brave people who file a lawsuit. This most recent ruling means that we will begin working on a solution for everyone in Tennessee!"

In her ruling, Trauger noted, among other things, that driving is, basically, a necessity in the U.S., especially in Tennessee.

Here are some of the hardest-hitting quotes in Trauger's ruling:

• "...suspending licenses without an effective, non-discretionary safety valve for the truly indigent violates both equal protection and due process principles."

• "When the state of Tennessee takes away a person’s right to drive, that person does not, suddenly and conveniently, stop having to transport oneself and family members to medical appointments, stop having to report to court dates, or stop having to venture into the world to obtain food and necessities."

• "...the court concludes that it is beyond dispute that, at least as a general proposition, the cities, towns, and communities of Tennessee are pervasively structured around the use of motor vehicles. Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money."

• "All of these facts, together, leave very little room for doubt regarding the plaintiffs’ assertion that an indigent person who loses her driver’s license is only going to be made less likely to be able to meet the ordinary expenses of life, let alone pay hundreds of dollars in traffic debt."

• "While additional testimony might be helpful in understanding the precise contours of the hardship that a lack of a license inflicts, judicial notice is more than sufficient to establish that that hardship is real and substantial. Most obviously, being unable to drive in Tennessee limits the jobs available to a person and makes holding a job difficult, once the person has it."

• "The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning. 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 committed the same traffic violation, but was able to pay her initial traffic debt, would never be obligated to pay."

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville.

It names David Purkey, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, as the primary defendant but also the court clerks in Rutherford and Wilson Counties and the clerks of Lebanon and Mt. Juliet.

Read Trauger's ruling here:
See related PDF robinson_v_purkey_mtd_denial_opinion.pdf

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