NCLEJ Wins Court Order Requiring Tennessee to Stop Suspending Licenses of People too Poor to Pay Traffic Tickets

On Tuesday, October 16th, nearly 300,000 people who had their driver’s licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay traffic debt – the fines, fees, and taxes that arise from traffic violations – won a significant victory when a federal judge granted the Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction in Robinson v. Purkey. The court ordered Tennessee to halt all suspensions for nonpayment of traffic debt, and to reinstate licenses upon request, unless and until it can determine that each individual has the ability to pay. People with suspended licenses should contact the Tennessee Department of Safety to request reinstatement.

The Court concluded that “what the plaintiffs seek is not merely the opportunity to throw themselves upon the mercy of a court in a proceeding in which indigence may be one factor, of many, for the court to consider or disregard. They seek the right to a pre-deprivation hearing, in which they are allowed the opportunity to demonstrate their eligibility for an exception [from driver’s license suspension] based on indigence.” This right to a pre-deprivation hearing is at the core of NCLEJ’s reason to be and resonates from the earliest days of our work;, winning cases like Goldberg v. Kelly, which established the right to a pre-deprivation hearing before subsistence benefits could be terminated.

This is our second win in Tennessee. Earlier this year, the District Court held that the state could not suspend a driver’s license when the driver is too poor to pay criminal court fines and fees (court debt) and ordered reinstatement of hundreds of thousands of licenses. That case is on appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

Claudia Wilner and Ed Krugman are lead for NCLEJ. Claudia observed in a press release that “momentum is growing across the country to end these unjust and unconstitutional suspensions that serve no purpose but to criminalize poverty. Thanks to this ruling, hundreds of thousands of indigent Tennesseans now have the opportunity to reinstate their driver’s licenses—and more importantly their ability to access jobs, medical care, and the countless important needs of daily life.”

We co-counseled with Just City, Civil Rights Corps, and the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.