Unconstitutional to Suspend License of People too Poor to Pay Fines


On July 2, 2018, Judge Aleta Trauger, a United States District Judge, ruled Tennessee’s systemic use of driver’s license suspensions as a tool to collect fines unconstitutional.  It’s about time.

James Thomas was approximately forty-three (43) years old and suffered from multiple disabilities at the time he was charged with criminal trespass in Davidson County for taking shelter under a bridge while homeless, in 2012.  He represented himself, pled guilty, and received a thirty (30) day jail sentence that was suspended.  He also received a fine of $289.70.  His only income consisted of Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP”) benefits.  After pleading guilty, he told the court clerk that he was homeless and had no money to pay his fines.  Four (4) years later he sought to obtain a driver’s license, but was unable to do so because the State had suspended his driving privileges due to his failure to pay his fines.

David Hixson had his driver’s license suspended in 2014 for failure to pay court financial obligations.  At the time he challenged the suspension in Federal Court, he was living in a homeless shelter.  Later in the case, he was living in a tent.  He claims he is generally qualified to work as an motorcycle mechanic, but is unable to find work due to a lack of a driver’s license.  He is fifty (50) years old.

Thomas and Hixson sued in 2017, arguing (generally) that suspending the driving privileges of a person that was willing, but unable, to pay court fines and penalties was unconstitutional.

On July 2, 2018, Judge Trauger ruled in favor of Thomas and Hixson, reasoning that “revoking the driver’s licenses of indigent court debtors appears to be counterproductive to the legitimate purpose of collecting on the underlying debt, and that, at some point, a policy becomes so manifestly counterproductive that it fails even the deferential standard of rational basis review.”  The Judge noted that additional due process was necessary, and that “indigence determinations are already a pervasive and unavoidable feature of the criminal justice system.”  The Judge declared the Tennessee Statute unconstitutional and enjoined the State from further suspensions in this fashion until additional due process procedures are enacted.

As any defense attorney who practices in New Jersey Municipal Court is aware, the threat of loss of driving privileges and incarceration are routinely utilized as measures to collect unpaid fines.  While courts will classically conduct “contempt hearings” to determine whether a defendant has willfully refused to pay a fine, these proceedings are often perfunctory in nature and are rarely reviewed by Appellate Courts for the simple reason that the vast majority of indigent defendants cannot afford an attorney to challenge the rulings.

Judge Trauger’s ruling, for the meantime, only impacts Tennessee defendants.  However, it is a positive decision that sheds light one inequity the Constitution prohibits:  One system of justice for the rich, and a very different system of justice for the poor.