A federal judge shot down Tennessee government’s deep state operation to revoke driver licenses of people who are unable to pay court debts, a case that highlighted an abusive system within the authority of a 2012 law, accompanied by abusive practices outside any authority.
By David Tulis / 92.7 FM NoogaRadio
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger raps the state for a law that “criminalizes poverty and disproportionately affects African-Americans,” according to Josh Spickler, head of Just City, a criminal justice reform group in Memphis. In Chattanooga 92.5 percent of people “drive to work,” says Judge Trauger, and so travel by car is an essential act for living that cannot be blockaded by a law that affects primarily poor people unable to pay court fees, fines and taxes.
Nearly 150,000 people from 2012 to 2016 have had their licenses revoked for failure to pay court fines and fees.
The ruling has broad implications across the country in states with similar irrational laws, says Claudia Wilner, an attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York, which filed the case in Nashville. The Trauger ruling, and an earlier memorandum, highlight an abuse of the right to travel that Tennessee and other states have unlawfully converted into regulable activity in commerce.
Barrier tumbles, commoners gain
“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,” Mrs. Wilner told The Tennessean, “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.”
Judge Trauger comes close to defending the right to travel, but upholds the pretense put forth by both sides in the case, that all use of cars by private citizens is transportation, and that all uses of cars by members of the public are regulable and privileged.
Transportation is the moving of people or goods in vehicles for hire to obtain a profit, and is a subcategory of travel, according to Tennessee law and court rulings.
Even though Judge Trauger leaves unmolested the state’s extra-statutory operation to enforce transportation law on private users, her ruling is an exciting development in Tennessee.
She brings a halt to the revocation scheme and gives the department of safety 60 days to come up with a plan to restore lost driver licenses among the poor. Without recourse, nearly 250,000 Tennesseans have suffered driver license revocation on account of poverty, people such as East Ridge restaurant worker Tiffany McGuinn.
The ruling will affect people such as Cameron Williams, a hiphop artist in Chattanooga under a pile of claims by state government and a revoked license.
“The court has already held that revoking the driver’s licenses of indigent court debtors appears to be counterproductive to the legitimate purpose of collecting on the underlying debt, and that, at some point, a policy becomes so manifestly counterproductive that it fails even the deferential standard of rational basis review. *** Life in Tennessee is a prime example of the fact that, as the Supreme Court has observed, ‘driving an automobile [is] a virtual necessity for most Americans.’ Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 715, (1977). There is simply no room to doubt that losing the right to drive imposes a major economic hardship on a Tennessean, particularly if he is already indigent.” (p 21, 22)
The judge says there may be reasons for revocation of license, such as careless driving, but the inability to pay a court fee is not rational basis for revocation. “Nothing about the court’s ruling suggests that Tennessee cannot revoke a person’s license because he drove dangerously or showed himself to be incompetent behind the wheel. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-501(a)(1), (3), (6). Nothing suggests that the state cannot revoke a license because a person drove drunk. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-501(a)(2).
“Those are rational reasons to take a person’s driving privileges away. Collecting debt from an indigent debtor, on the other hand, is simply not a rational basis for revoking a license. No rational creditor wants his debtor to be sidelined from productive economic life. No rational creditor wants his debtor to be less able to hold a job or cover his other, competing living expenses. A rational creditor might want the benefit of the threat of a license revocation, but nothing that the plaintiffs have argued would deny the state that threat. The state can still use the specter of revocation to encourage payment of court debt; it simply must afford the debtor the opportunity to demonstrate, first, that the only reason he has failed to pay is that he simply cannot.” (p 22)
Judge Trauger says the plaintiffs’ challenge is not challenging the processes that found them guilty or delinquent, but the “post-judgment course of tools used in the state’s collection regime” (p. 23)
Great fault in terrific ruling
Judge Trauger does not recognize that transportation and travel are distinct, and that the controlling legal fiction (that all travel = transportation) is the fundamental problem faced by the citizenry, whether poor or rich. But she moves in the right direction.
She uses in her ruling the rubric of transportation, but she implicitly endorses the idea free travel when she ridicules the idea that a homeless person who cannot afford to pay court costs can simply hop into a cab or Uber or Lyft on a regular basis.
Judge Trauger sketches how movement by car is an essential part of life in Tennessee, and explores the damage to poor people when they are put under a travel ban.
“A far different calculus prevails *** when the privilege lost is the ability to operate a car on the state’s roadways. Unlike the power to vote, the ability to drive is crucial to the debtor’s ability to actually establish the economic self-sufficiency that is necessary to be able to pay the relevant debt. It does not require reams of expert testimony to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources. ‘[D]riving an automobile’ is ‘a virtual necessity for most Americans.’ Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 715 (1977). Thomas and Hixson have previewed substantial evidence to that effect, much of which Purkey has objected to on evidentiary, rather than factual, grounds. Even solely on the basis of the undisputed facts and the basic features of life of which the court can take judicial notice, however, the substantial economic disadvantages associated with being unable lawfully to drive are apparent.
“Most obviously, being unable to drive in Tennessee limits the jobs available to a person and makes holding a job difficult once the person has it. ‘Automobile travel *** is a basic, pervasive, and often necessary mode of transportation to and from one’s home [and] workplace.’ Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 662 (1979). Some jobs require a person to drive as part of his duties, and even those jobs that do not themselves involve driving generally require the employee to be somewhere, reliably, on time.”
Judge Trauger continues:
“The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning. Being unable to drive is the equivalent of a recurring tax or penalty on engaging in the wholly lawful ordinary activities of life—a tax or penalty that someone who was convicted of the same offense, but was able to pay his initial court debt, would never be obligated to pay.
“When the State of Tennessee takes away a person’s right to drive, that person does not, suddenly and conveniently, stop having to go to medical appointments, stop having to report to court dates, or stop having to venture into the world to obtain food and necessities. Maybe public transportation will work for some of those activities some of the time, and maybe it will not.
“Purkey has offered nothing that would permit the court to conclude that public transportation can adequately fill the void left by the loss of a license, and indeed he stipulates, at a minimum, that ‘[p]ublic transportation is not available in some parts of Tennessee.’(Docket No. 40 ¶ 42.) Similarly, while some individuals with revoked licenses may be able to rely on family or charitable assistance for some purposes, there is no reason to conclude that such options will be available or adequate in most cases. What, then, is a person on a revoked license to do? The lawful options are simple: he can simply forgo the life activities, no matter how important, for which he cannot obtain adequate transportation, or he can incur additional transportation expenses—making himself that much less likely ever to satisfy his court debt.”
Escalating crisis for the poor
The court system is part of state economy skimming local economy, and Judge Trauger appears to recognize how the poor become trapped in the system.
“Of course, an indigent person with a revoked license has another option, besides accepting the practical limitations that the state has placed on him: he can, faced with the need to navigate the world and no feasible, affordable, and legal option for doing so, break the law and drive. The court very deliberately uses ‘can’ here, not ‘may’ or ‘should,’ but it would simply be willful blindness to ignore the fact that some debtors with revoked licenses will be tempted to disregard the revocation, at least for pressing needs. By defying his license revocation, however, the indigent debtor puts himself at the risk of incurring more fines, more court costs, and more litigation taxes that will be likely to render the restoration of his rights an even more improbable proposition. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-35-111(e), 55-50-504(a) (criminalizing and imposing fines on driving on a revoked license).
“If the purpose of such a scheme were simply to lock indigent defendants into an endless cycle of greater and greater debt, it could be said to serve that purpose well. But Purkey, to his credit, does not assert that the State of Tennessee or his Department has any legitimate interest in building inescapable debt traps for indigent Tennesseans.”
Centrality of driving in TN
The court wants to take judicial notice that the use of cars and trucks for personal and family business is quintessential for living in 2018.
“The plaintiffs first urge the court to take judicial notice, generally, of the centrality of motor vehicle travel to life in Tennessee. As the court has already discussed, taking at least some judicial notice to that effect is proper. *** Of particular relevance to this case, the Supreme Court itself appears to have had little hesitation in observing that ‘[a]utomobile travel . . . is a basic, pervasive, and often necessary mode of transportation,’ Prouse, 440 U.S. at 662, or in referring to driving as ‘a virtual necessity for most Americans.’ Wooley, 430 U.S. at 715. “
Judge Trauger makes note of God’s creation by pointing out that people in Tennessee live in time and space, and that space separates people, and that the use of conveyances such as cars are essential to reduce distances and bring people together.
“the court judicially notices that the public transportation available in Tennessee is widely insufficient to provide an adequate substitute for access to private motor vehicle transportation. Second, the court judicially notices that the services, businesses, homes, and workplaces throughout Tennessee are so geographically diffuse that navigating life in the state wholly on foot is impracticable for all but perhaps a few Tennesseans.
Bike not good enough
Feet, horses, mules, bicycles and other modes of travel, in the judge’s view, are not adequate substitutes for car, truck or motorbike
“Third, the court judicially notices that a number of obstacles prevent non-motorized transportation, such as bicycles, from providing an adequate alternative to driving in Tennessee, including (1) the aforementioned geographically diffuse pattern of development; (2) the need to travel on interstates and highways; (3) safety concerns associated with using non-motorized travel in areas without paths dedicated to that purpose; (4) the lack of such dedicated paths on numerous important roads within the state; and (5) the fact that many Tennesseans face physical limitations that would not prevent them from driving but that would sharply limit their use of a bicycle or other human-powered mode of transportation.
“Based on its judicial notice of these aforementioned facts, the court concludes that it is beyond dispute that, at least as a general proposition, the cities, towns, and communities of Tennessee are pervasively structured around the use of motor vehicles.
“Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money. The centrality of motor vehicle travel is, moreover, not solely a rural problem. Even the relatively dense city of Nashville, where the court sits, is deeply reliant on motor vehicle transport. If any city in this jurisdiction could be expected to be reasonably navigable without driving, it would be Nashville—and the court takes judicial notice that, to the contrary, Nashville is a city where motor vehicle travel is an essential part of ordinary life, particularly for anyone seeking to maintain or build economic self-sufficiency. ***
‘Powerfully counterproductive; logistical triage’
Earlier, Judge Trauger blasted Tennessee’s program: “Ultimately, the court need not determine if the driver’s license revocation law would fail rational basis review based on its sheer ineffectiveness alone, because, as applied to indigent drivers, the law is not merely ineffective; it is powerfully counterproductive. If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect. For one thing, the lack of a driver’s license substantially limits one’s ability to obtain and maintain employment.
“Even aside from the effect on employment, however, the inability to drive introduces new obstacles, risks, and costs to a wide array of life activities, as the former driver is forced into a daily ordeal of logistical triage to compensate for his inadequate transportation. In short, losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote.”