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On the Road Again

Judge orders state to give back licenses to those who couldn’t pay.

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In two months, government officials are to submit a plan to get drivers licenses back to thousands of Tennesseans who had them taken because they couldn't pay court costs and fees.

The move comes after a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last week the state's process of revoking licenses because of inability to pay. The court also mandated a stop to all such future revocations.

The suit was originally filed in January 2017, in part by Just City, the Memphis criminal justice reform advocacy group, and Memphis-based law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and Civil Rights Corps joined the suit later. Last month, United States District Judge Aleta Trauger allowed the groups to certify a statewide class of plaintiffs.

In all, more than 146,000 Tennesseans have lost their drivers licenses because they were too poor to pay their court debt, according to Just City. But restoring licenses may be a difficult task.

"It is not apparent to the court, however, that every person under a revocation would or should have an automatic right to drive again, even if his revocation is lifted," Trauger wrote. "Some such drivers may face other revocations or suspensions on other grounds."

State officials will now have to pore through the people in the class to identify which ones qualify for reinstatement under the new ruling. To do this, Trauger gave them two months to devise a plan to identify the affected drivers, lift their revocations, and give them their licenses back.

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In that time, however, the state cannot block a driver from getting a license back on his failure to have paid court debt or failure to pay reinstatement fees.

At the heart of the ruling lies a simple fact — driving is a near necessity in Tennessee. According to census data, 93.4 percent of Tennesseeans drive to work. In Memphis, 93.5 percent drive to work every day.

Trauger wrote, "in light of the actual realities of economic life in Tennessee, the loss of one's ability to drive is substantially deleterious to a person's capacity for economic self-sufficiency."

Further, many Tennesseans who lose their drivers license continue to drive anyway, according to the ruling. Getting caught is a misdemeanor, which comes with new fines and fees that creates a "debt spiral" that leaves an indigent person "only deeper in the red to the government and less likely to ever have a drivers license again."

Trauger said license revocation is not an "effective mechanism" to coerce payment from an indigent debtor because "no person can be threatened or coerced into paying money that he does not have and cannot get." From 2012 to 2016, only 7 percent of the 146,211 people whose licenses were revoked had them reinstated.

"This ruling recognizes that Tennessee's practice of blindly suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment of court debt is unfair, senseless, and ultimately destructive. For too long, Tennesseans living in poverty have faced impossible economic choices and been driven into an endless cycle of debt because of this irrational policy," said ​Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City​.

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