Lawsuits say the practice severely penalizes those too poor to pay.
The Marshall Project | By Beth Schwartzapfel
In April 2015, Ashley Sprague was making $2.13 an hour plus tips as a waitress at Waffle House when she was pulled over for speeding in a small city near her home outside Nashville. The speeding ticket, plus another citation for failure to have proof of insurance, totaled $477.50, a sum that might as well have been a million dollars. Over the course of the next 13 months, she was cited twice more for administrative infractions, including — she was surprised to discover — driving on a suspended license.
Tennessee is one of 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, that suspends driver’s licenses for people with unpaid court debt, according a recent report by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based organization that filed a lawsuit there challenging the practice. Although Tennessee says it gives drivers 30 days notice before suspending a license, Sprague and her lawyers say she was not told about her suspension and the state does not notify people in every case. Only four states require a hearing beforehand to determine whether the failure to pay is willful or simply a reflection of poverty, the report found. Almost a million people in Virginia and 150,000 in Tennessee currently have their licenses suspended for failure to pay, according to documents filed in lawsuits there.
The lawsuits in Virginia and Tennessee are part of a nascent trend around the country: lawmakers are beginning to reconsider the practice, and lawsuits in at least five states are challenging it. They argue that suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt traps poor people in an unfair and counterproductive cycle: if they can’t drive, they can’t work; if they can’t work, they can’t pay; if they can’t pay, they can’t drive.
Sprague and others made this argument in a class action suit filed this fall, and in a preliminary ruling last month in Nashville, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger agreed. She ordered the state to reinstate the licenses of Sprague and a co-plaintiff, Fred Robinson, writing that “no person can be threatened or coerced into paying money that she does not have and cannot get.”
In court filings, the state of Tennessee argued that a license is a privilege and not a right, and that the state “has a compelling public interest in promoting public safety by enforcing its traffic laws and keeping serial violators off the road.”
At least three states plus the District of Columbia are reconsidering the practice.
The lawsuits tell the stories of people jailed for driving after having had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt — a situation that critics liken to debtors’ prison. Robert Taylor is a plaintiff in the Virginia case who was earning $9.62 per hour working for T-Mobile and was pulled over for running a red light. This set off a cycle of debt, license suspensions, and new convictions for driving with a suspended license, that landed him in jail for 20 days last year. He still owes more than $4,000 in court debt.
“When you are faced with the uncertainty of potentially being pulled over and being incarcerated versus the certainty of losing your job and not being able to provide for your family, most people would choose to drive, and that’s what most people choose,” says Angela Ciolfi, a lawyer representing Taylor and the other plaintiffs in the Virginia suit. “We don’t live in a society where most people can rely on public transportation and work and shop and meet their basic needs without driving.”
Most of the movement on this issue began in the last two years, sparked by a Department of Justice investigation into the predatory practices of the Ferguson, Mo., municipal court. The report, issued in 2015, found that the local police and court system were run with an eye toward maximizing revenue, often on the backs of those who could least afford it. “Ferguson made it part of the national debate — the way states coerce people into paying and deprive them of their livelihood,” says Ciolfi.