Tennessee Criminal Attorney Blog
July 5, 2018

Federal Judge: Tennessee Must Stop Revoking the Licenses of People Who Can’t Pay Their Fines


According to statistics provided by The Tennessean, more than 146,200 drivers have lost their license simply because they couldn’t afford to pay court costs. A ruling from U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger changes that.

The criminal justice system relies heavily on court costs and administrative fees, but for many people those costs are a significant burden. Someone accused of even a petty crime may still face thousands of dollars of court costs, which only increase over time due to the inability to pay those costs.

In Tennessee, a failure to pay fines and costs has meant that the state can revoke your driver’s license. Obviously, this threw people into a vicious cycle: a person who couldn’t pay costs lost their license, which meant they couldn’t get to work, which meant more costs were incurred, and so on – a cycle of debt that sent many people who were already hurting financially into even more dire straits.

Judge Trauger acknowledged this, writing “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.”

The judge is right, of course – the policy was nonsensical on its face, punitive to the point of being cruel. The State has said it will comply with the ruling, and beginning today, people may apply to have their licenses reinstated; there are reports that this process is not going as smoothly as it should, but the fact that the process has begun at all is a step in the right direction.