Tennessee License Suspension For Unpaid Debts Ruled Unconstitutionally Unfair to Indigent

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A federal judge in the Middle District of Tennessee has ruled that Tennessee’s practice of suspending a driving license to compel the collection of delinquent court debts is unconstitutionally unfair to poor people.  She has ordered Tennessee to stop and to start restoring the licenses of people who simply could not pay, but an appeal is likely.

Similar cases are pending elsewhere including one in Virginia which was dismissed but is going back on remand. More than 40 states use the method in some form.  I have not yet been able to find the judge’s written opinion on line, but back in March she issued a memorandum laying out her likely reasoning for a summary judgement in favor of the debtors.

“The fact that it is difficult to collect debts from very poor debtors is a reality faced by people and entities, both public and private, in a wide array of circumstances; indeed, it is a problem as old, presumably, as debt itself,” she wrote.

Also: “Tennessee’s system has the actual effect of imposing a harsher punishment on indigent defendants than on non-indigent defendants based solely on their economic circumstances. A non-indigent defendant has a choice: pay or lose his license. Drivers like (plaintiffs) Thomas and Hixson, they argue, have no such choice. The plaintiffs challenge this differential treatment as unconstitutional pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”

The plaintiffs also argued that license suspension is not an option for the collection of private debts, only court debts, 1s further evidence it was not fair.

My introduction to this issue came as the lobbyist for several Virginia law firms doing collection work for various local courts. About five years ago, in budget language that simply appeared in a final state budget document, an additional 17% fee was tacked on to all accounts sent out for collection. The attorney who initially contacted me wanted to know where that anonymous proposal came from, in part because he knew it made it harder for debtors to pay up.

In response to the pending Virginia case, the Virginia Supreme Court directed local courts to allow payment plans that took the defendant’s ability to pay into account. It is not clear whether that was the case in Tennessee or if that is a solution it may propose. It is also not clear yet if that has allowed more Virginians to get their licenses back. It is estimated that one in six Virginians have lost their license over unpaid fines and fees (which do not have to be driving-related at all).

The harsh reality is that state and local governments love this revenue. More than $470 million in fines and fees were assessed in Virginia’s courts in 2017, and more than $200 million were judged delinquent. As high as the basic fines have become, the processing fees and interest magnify the problem in delinquent cases. An annual state report tracks the collection of delinquent fines by the clerks, local commonwealth’s attorneys, local treasurers and a small group of private collectors. It does not appear that collections dropped off in 2017 because of the payment plans.

The even harsher reality is the opponents of this system are right that it ultimately is counterproductive to expect somebody who cannot afford to pay to dig themselves out of debt without basic transportation, which for most means a car. The end of this approach may be in sight, although the judge in her initial memorandum didn’t believe the system was unfair in the case of people who did have the ability to pay. Who decides what, and who is poor enough to be protected from that collection method? It will probably just go away.

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13 responses to “Tennessee License Suspension For Unpaid Debts Ruled Unconstitutionally Unfair to Indigent”

  1. One in six Virginians have had their licenses revoked? Hey, think of the bright side — that’s more people to ride buses and take mass transit! What would happen to those transportation modes if all those people got their driver’s licenses back!!

    Maybe they could ride bikes and scooters.

    In all seriousness, the practice of taking away peoples’ driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs is lunacy. The tricky part is figuring out how to get people to pay those court costs. If there’s no sanction, what incentive is there for them to pay?

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    All kinds of “illegal” behavior result in fines … ” Fines double in work zones”, etc… so the idea that the penalty be monetary is pretty standard and for people who have LOTS of money – the fines are a joke.. just an annoyance… such laws are for “the little people”, eh?

    So how about work camps… or community service? Or .. how about mandatory attendance at job training or other education ? 😉

    Maybe we could bring back the CCC camps?

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I think that, as a policy matter, states should work to find ways for people with court debts to continue to be able to drive to work, while putting them on a fair and reasonable payment plan. But the idea that a rule to the opposite is unconstitutional simply is legislating by unelected judges. Economic circumstances has never been an equal protection category and never should be. A court of appeals should slap the judge in the ass and hard.

  4. Agree with both the above comments. We cannot heighten the hurdles to gainful employment, stable residency, and personal solvency while complaining that people are unemployed, homeless, and broke. If a state strip ID from a debtor, they may as well ship them to colony. The best conservative policy provides a glide path to personal accountability and responsibility rather than revoking it.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    After writing this yesterday I listened to a recorded interview with the Richmond attorney, Randy Rollins, who runs a non-profit that helps indigent debtors negotiate the system for getting their licenses back with a payment plan. I hope to follow up on how that is going. But to correct the impression from some earlier stories he had some stats of interest. Yes, DMV has issued almost 1 million suspension orders and there are 5.8 million Virginia licensees, but some people have more than one suspension order. So perhaps 600,000 individuals have been suspended – still one in ten. Of those, however, only a subset are suspended merely for non-payment of court debts. There are also many people who lost their license because their driving records are so bad. You can lose it for non-payment of child support, or for an unpaid civil judgement growing out of a traffic accident. Of course the problem remains in those cases, too – how to you pay the debt without a job and can you have a job without mobility?

    That still may leave 200-300,000 Virginians who are without a license merely because they couldn’t pay traffic tickets or criminal fines and related fees. Rollins said most of his clients have unpaid fines in more than one locality and the average debt is close to $5000, which is daunting for anybody.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    Work it off or learn it off. You get $15/hour credit for all work performed at the direction of the locality. There are streams to be cleaned, buildings to be painted, etc. Alternately, you can take GED classes or other job skill enhancement classes. However, you must pass a test at the end of the training or you don’t get the credit.

  7. Acbar Avatar

    Interesting how halting DMV privileges becomes an enforcement tactic embedded in the bureaucracy.

    I, for one, was in the hospital earlier this year and a few days late paying my quarterly Fairfax County water bill. Two months later, with no further communication from the County, I went to renew my registration on-line and found there was an unspecified “hold” on my DMV account. It took several phone calls to unravel the cause: Fairfax County reported my bill unpaid, which causes DMV automatically to refuse to renew the person’s registration (not a license suspension); apparently the County had failed to follow up when the payment came in. It took many more phone calls with long waits to get Fairfax to (1) acknowledge the account’s paid status and (2) contact DMV manually to have its “hold” released. Then it took a personal visit to DMV and a long wait at the counter while the clerk found the County’s release and manually instructed DMV’s computer to process my registration renewal. Simple, eh? As a retiree, this took me only about a half day on the phone total plus three hours to drive over and visit DMV in person. Of course this had to be done during business hours. Now, ask someone with a full time job to perform those tasks while at work!

    How has DMV become the collection agency of choice for every arm of government in Virginia? This problem goes far beyond court fines!

  8. Acbar Avatar

    Debtors’ Prison is something we tend to think of as one of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, a Dickensian fate imposed on the British underclass before the social reforms of the Victorian era. “In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year.[11] A prison term did not alleviate a person’s debt, however; an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in-full before being released. . . . Life in these prisons . . . was far from pleasant, and the inmates were forced to pay for their keep. . . . The father of the English author Charles Dickens was sent to one of these prisons (the Marshalsea), which were often described in Dickens’s novels. He became an advocate for debt prison reform, and his novel Little Dorrit dealt directly with this issue. . . . While the United States no longer has brick and mortar debtors’ prisons, or “gaols for debtors” of private debts, the term “debtor’s prison” in modern times sometimes refers to the practice of imprisoning indigent criminal defendants for matters related to either a fine or a fee imposed in criminal judgments.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debtors%27_prison

    OK, now we learn the modern reality: “It is estimated that one in six Virginians have lost their license over unpaid fines and fees (which do not have to be driving-related at all).” As Steve notes, that’s 600,000 Virginians — compare that to all of Dickens’ Britain at 10,000! In Virginia today, denial of vehicle registration or a drivers license is tantamount to denial of legal access to most folks’ existing jobs — and, in effect, this practice has been extended beyond court-imposed costs to debt collection by all government agencies in Virginia (e.g., see my account above of a run-in I had with the Fairfax County Water Authority).

    What we’ve done, of course, is elevate the importance of debts owed to the government (or to individuals pursuant to court order, such as alimony) above every other kind of personal debt. We have, in effect, created a new form of debtors prison for those with debts to the government — no private business or private collection agency can tap the DMV as a collection tool. No wonder those people who have no recourse from such highhanded tactics are angry at government generally, and are voting for train-wreck-artists they think will do something about it, like the Trumps and Stewarts of the world.

    Now, now, I should calm down — but this really is damnable.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Acbar – you’re commentary on this issue is wonderful. You highlight yet another manifestation of our out of control government. What makes this conduct by our governments even more “damnable” as you say, is their gross wastage of taxpayer dollars, and their now common refusal to live within their own budgets. Or, in the Federal government’s case recently, their refusal to even pass budgets, much less honor them. Government in this country increasingly is both out of control and dysfunctional.

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    How about this? Uncle Sam withholds passports from those who owe more than $51,000 in overdue tax debt? “The new law’s effects are already noticeable, according to an IRS spokesman, who told the Journal that 220 people had handed over $11.5 million to repay their full debts as of late June, while 1,400 others had set up payment plans to reduce their debts.”


    1. Acbar Avatar

      Reminds me of those cast-iron plaques on the front of certain houses in Old Town Alexandria that signified “Fire Protection Fee paid.” Without that, I suppose the firemen would stand there and watch it burn. Only in the 18th century those were private fire fighting services.

      So now it appears I need a “all debts to government paid in full” plaque to mount on my front wall. Maybe with a replacement sticker to glue on, like the license plate on my car, but monthly, and clearly visible from the road. The government already demands the equivalent on-line — blacklisting me and withholding essential services until I’m all paid up; what’s the difference if displayed physically for all passersby to see? Now you tell me they’re withholding the ability to leave the country. I wonder if they’ll suspend my right to fly and wave the American flag if I can’t prove all my government obligations are satisfied?

  10. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Sure, that will work (as does the license suspension) for people who have the money and are just being stupid/stubborn. Not too many of these indigent debtors are world travelers….

    1. Acbar Avatar

      Steve, you are right — but it seems to me the underlying problem is, the government is not just an ordinary vendor of goods but a supplier of essential services. It’s instructive to compare to the private (or “quasi-governmental”) equivalent, a utility, which is also a supplier of essential services and is heavily regulated by a public service commission that can (and does in most States) specify by rules how much notice must be given by every utility before disconnecting someone’s service, what has to be done to get it restored, and blackout periods when disconnection is forbidden (e.g., energy for heat cannot be cut off during certain winter dates); and also runs a complaint adjudication forum for those who feel they were treated unfairly. There is nothing equivalent regulating these agencies run-amok (except the GA, which hardly has the time or patience to set major policy let alone get down in those consumer-complaint weeds). It seems to me the utility model should be applied to these government agencies (including the Dept. of Taxation) through some yet-to-be-created consumer protection commission with standard-setting, policing and shaming capabilities.

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