The ruling, issued July 2 by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, who presides in the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville, demanded that the Department of Safety immediately begin reinstating driver’s licenses to people who had theirs revoked on that one issue — non-payment of fines and costs. Trauger gave the state 60 days to submit a plan for lifting the revocations.
The Tennessee statute, TCA 40-24-105(b), became law in 2011 as a way to force defendants to pay court fees and fines within a year. If they didn’t, their licenses could be revoked without notice.
Washington County Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn said her office works with defendants on payment plans to help ease the burden of a large court bill. As long as defendants were paying something each month, the office did not send in paperwork to the state for license revocation.
Now, even if defendants don’t make payments on the court costs and fines, their license can’t be revoked.
Guinn said her office has received numerous calls from defendants with revoked licenses asking about reinstatement since the ruling was issued.
“We’re referring them to the Department of Safety,” Guinn said. “We can’t do the reinstatement. That goes through the Department of Safety.”
Megan Buell, public information officer for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said people whose licenses were revoked under the non-payment law can have their licenses reinstated immediately at no cost.
“Based on the federal court order issued July 2, 2018, the department will reinstate and reissue a driver license, without charge, to any person whose sole revocation is for failure pay fines, fees, and court costs under T.C.A. § 40-24-105(b),” Buell said. “If a person has other revocations or suspensions on their record, those will need to be addressed by the person prior to reinstatement or reissuance.”
The estimated number of affected licensed drivers was 146,000 according to Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz, the law firm that filed the suit on behalf of two men who were too poor to pay the court fees and had their license revoked. Other agencies that joined the class action suit were Just City, Civil Rights Corps and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
“The court’s decision will have tremendous impact for people across the state of Tennessee. Whether a person lives in Nashville or rural communities in Tennessee, a motor vehicle is central to daily life. In the federal court’s own words, ‘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.’ (The) victory ensures that we will continue to challenge unjust laws that criminalize poverty throughout Tennessee and nationwide,” said Premal Dharia, director of litigation at Civil Rights Corps.
Buell said those with revoked driver’s licenses who believe the ruling will affect them can contact the department’s service line to see if their licenses qualify.The number is 866-903-7357.
“We are doing our best to accommodate our customers. We appreciate everyone’s patience as we attend to this matter,” Buell said.