It's unconstitutional for the state of Tennessee to continue revoking driver's licenses from people who can't pay court costs, a federal judge according to the Tennessean.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger will have broad national and state ramifications, said Claudia Wilner, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York City who worked on the case.
Calling Trauger's ruling a "tour de force," Wilner said the order means more than 100,000 people in Tennessee can start the process today of regaining their driver's license.
"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," Wilner said in an interview.
"Many, many people who have been unable to find work are going to be free to go back to work again."
Trauger's ruling orders the department to stop revoking the licenses and to reinstate the license of any individual who had theirs revoked due solely to non-payment of fees. The department must present a plan to the court within 60 days for how it plans to reinstate all of the licenses revoked under this law.
A spokeswoman for the department referred comment to the Tennessee attorney general.
"We are disappointed with the trial court’s decision and are considering all of our legal options," said Kelly K. Smith, a senior advisor in the office of the attorney general.
But Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich praised the decision.
“This ruling will give relief to those drivers whose licenses are revoked only because they lack the financial resources to pay their fines and court costs," Weirich said in a statement. "Our hope is that this will be a positive step toward rehabilitation since offenders getting their driving privileges restored will make employment more feasible. Also, it will reduce our daily caseload and allow us to focus even more on violent crimes and property crimes.”
There are similar laws in states around the country. Wilner said Trauger's ruling could influence other decisions elsewhere in the nation, one that could impact hundreds of thousands of people trying to improve their lives.
"This is the first decision in the nation to hold that these kinds of suspensions or revocations without consideration of a person's ability to pay are unconstitutional," Wilner said."The court’s opinion was so detailed and so thoughtful that we expect it to be extremely influential for other courts in other jurisdictions that will be considering the same question."
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