NCLEJ and Co-Counsel Challenge the Unconstitutional Revocation of Driver’s Licenses in Tennessee

NCLEJ, along with co-counsel Civil Rights Corps, Just City, and the law firm of Baker Donelson, has filed Thomas v. Haslam, a federal class action lawsuit challenging the unconstitutional revocation of driver’s licenses – without notice or opportunity to be heard — from more than 146,000 low-income people in Tennessee who are too poor to pay criminal justice debt.

In Tennessee, as in many jurisdictions, defendants in the criminal justice system incur substantial debt, as they are charged with the costs of their own prosecution – everything from the bailiff, to the court reporter, to their own public defender. Tennessee law requires that people must pay these costs within one year or suffer the mandatory revocation of their driver’s licenses, even if they did not pay solely because they were indigent and unable to pay.

Without their driver’s licenses, people have difficulty getting and keeping work, accessing medical care, and even engaging in simple activities of daily life like grocery shopping and visiting friends and family. The law falls especially heavily on people who are incarcerated for longer than one year and lose their licenses while they are imprisoned, making their reentry into society even more challenging.

The lawsuit claims that the Tennessee statute is unconstitutional because it is fundamentally unfair to deprive people of driver’s licenses without consideration of their ability to pay and without providing notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the revocation. It also contends that the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause by singling out criminal justice debtors for unduly harsh and discriminatory treatment.

This case is part of NCLEJ’s new initiative to work with local partners to address unfair and abusive debt collection practices. For more information, contact Claudia Wilner,

To read press coverage from The Tennessean, click here.