A federal judge has struck down Tennessee’s policy of suspending driver’s licenses of people who cannot afford to pay court costs or traffic fines, the first such ruling of its kind in the United States and a significant step toward decriminalizing people for being poor.
The court declared that the law, as written, violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution,and orders the state to stop suspending licenses. “[A]s applied to indigent drivers,” the court said, “the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive.”
The federal class action challenge to this policy was brought forth in 2017 by Civil Rights Corps, a grantee of the Human Rights program, alongside public interest groups the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Tennessee-based Just City, as well as the law firm Baker Donelson.
Speaking to the New York Times after the court’s ruling, Civil Rights Corps’ director of litigation illustrated how the policy has upended the lives of low-income Tennessee residents: “Not only can you not visit family members, or go to church, or go to school, but you cannot go to work to earn the money to pay off these debts if you cannot drive.”Since the law was passed in 2012, more than 100,000 driver’s licenses in Tennessee have been revoked.
You can read more about this case on Civil Right Corps’ website. In addition, Civil Rights Corps’ Founder and Executive Director Alec Karakatsanis was recently interviewed for the Justice in America podcast, and you can listen to that episode here.