Significant Win in NCLEJ’s Tennessee Driver’s License Class Action

NCLEJ and its allies won a significant victory yesterday in Thomas v. Haslam (Middle District TN., Judge Aleta Trauger). The Court, in a lengthy, detailed, and very well-reasoned decision denied the State’s motion to dismiss and granted plaintiffs class certification. The Judge also set forth a schedule for the parties to move for summary judgment. Her decision reads as a roadmap for the granting of summary judgment for plaintiffs.

Thomas challenges 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 could not 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 have been incarcerated for longer than one year – these folks lose their licenses while they are imprisoned, making their reentry into society even more challenging.

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.

For more information about NCLEJ’s initiative to combat unfair and abusive debt collection practices, contact Claudia Wilner,

Read the full court decision.