Gavel and scales in a courtroom.

Drivers License Can't Be Revoked for Being Poor in Tennessee

Recently, a federal judge decided that a person's state driver's license cannot be revoked because of failure to pay court fines. At first blush, it may seem surprising that a federal judge would rule on a state issue. But the issue here is Federal Civil Rights of Due Process and Equal Protection, not state vehicle statutes. Without getting into whether driving is a privilege or a right, the federal judge ruled that revoking a driver's license merely because one cannot afford court fines for issues completely unassociated with driving is senseless and counter-productive, and basically criminalizes poverty.

Over 40 states have laws on their books allowing for driver's licenses to be revoked for failure to pay court fees and traffic fines. Though the judge only ruled on the constitutionality of the Tennessee laws, all similar state laws are now in jeopardy of being declared unconstitutional.

Crime and Punishment

This case brings up the age-old question of whether the punishment fits the crime. In this instance, if the crime is failing to pay a fee, punishing the person by taking away one of the most important tools to ultimately pay the fee (getting to work!), seems an odd fit. Indeed, even convicted drunk drivers can have their licenses restricted instead of suspended for the sole purpose of getting to and from work. Evidently states recognize the important of a driver's license for gainful employment. And drunk drivers seem like much more of a safety risk than being poor.

Criminalization of Poverty

The criminalization of poverty has risen sharply in recent years. Government branches are strapped for cash, and to generate revenue, there seems to be a court fee associated with just about every crime. A $62 speeding ticket in one southern state amounted to a $250 bill, when all fines and fees were added in. Even more senseless fees were outlined in a recent NPR piece, such as:

  • Charging defendants for public defenders
  • Charging prisoners for room and board
  • Billing offenders for probation and parole supervision
  • Offenders charged for their own arrest warrants

Everyone understands that budgets are tight, and money has to come from somewhere. But you can't squeeze blood from a turnip. And you can't get money out of an unemployed indigent person.

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