Judge rules Tennessee can’t revoke licenses over unpaid court costs

A federal judge in Tennessee ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state officials to revoke driver’s licenses from citizens who are unable to pay court costs.

While the ruling only impacts individuals in Tennessee, it could have broader implications in dozens of states across the country where similar policies exist.

Critics of the policy and laws like it have argued that it adversely impacts low-income individuals.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote Monday that the law, which took effect in 2012, violates the constitutional right to due process and equal protection rights.

“Practically speaking, this is going to be a huge benefit to the low-income people of Tennessee who are going to be able to drive to work, take their kids to school, go to the grocery store, visit the doctor, without fear of being arrested and prosecuted for driving without a license,” Claudia Wilner, an attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York, told The Tennessean.

The judge gave state officials 60 days to come up with a plan to stop revoking licenses over unpaid court debts and lift penalties on those who had been affected by the policy, allowing them to regain their licenses.

The ruling will affect an estimated 100,000 Tennessee individuals who will now be able to regain their driver’s licenses.

The lawsuit was brought by two men affected by the law, James Thomas and David Hixson, who sued the state over it in 2017. 

It’s unclear whether the state plans to appeal.

“We are disappointed with the trial court’s decision and are considering all of our legal options,” Kelly Smith, a senior adviser in the state attorney general’s office, told The Associated Press.

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