VOL. 41 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 22, 2017
Federal lawsuit filed challenging driver’s license suspensions
By Sam Stockard
A group of civil rights advocates has filed a federal class-action lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s suspension of more than 250,000 driver’s licenses affecting people too poor to pay traffic tickets.
Attorneys with Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York City, Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz law firm of Memphis and Just City of Memphis have filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nashville claiming the suspensions are made without “basic constitutional protections” and prevent tens of thousands of Tennesseans from having transportation to jobs, health care, child care and other fundamental needs.
The group of attorneys also contends the driver’s license suspensions raise racial injustice concerns because African-American motorists are four times more likely to lose their licenses than white drivers for failing to pay traffic tickets.
Johnny Gibbs, 36, who lives with his sick father, mother and sister in a Murfreesboro motel room, Fred Robinson, 32, of Murfreesboro, who suffers from debilitating illnesses, and Ashley Sprague, 26, of Lebanon, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey, Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell, Rutherford County, Wilson County Circuit Court Clerk Debbie Moss, Lebanon Municipal Court Clerk Corey Linville, Mt. Juliet City Court Clerk Susan Gaskill, Wilson County and the cities of Lebanon and Mt. Juliet.
Robinson and Sprague are asking the court to order the defendants to reinstate their licenses immediately and stop the practices that cost thousands of poor state residents their licenses, according to the attorneys.
“I see the destructive nature of this failed public policy nearly every day,” says Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a nonprofit legal group. “Already struggling against poor mass transit and limited job opportunities in their neighborhoods, people are forced to drive across town to find work.
“Getting caught means hundreds of dollars in costs and fines and potentially jail. Not driving means not working.
“This destructive public policy does nothing except erode our workforce and criminalize poverty,” Spickler adds. “We look forward to challenging this in court and bringing some much-needed relief to Tennessee’s working families.”
The lawsuit states Tennessee has suspended more than 250,000 driver’s licenses over the last five years for non-payment of fines, court costs and litigation taxes arising from driving offenses and traffic citations. Rutherford County accounted for 8,629 of those suspensions and Wilson County for 4,355, according to the lawsuit.
“These suspensions are not part of the punishment for any traffic-related infraction; they relate solely to debt collection. Plaintiffs and class members in this case lost their licenses simply because of their poverty,” the lawsuit states.
The Department of Safety and Homeland Security declined to comment on pending litigation but said the matter is being handled by the Attorney General’s Office.
The lawsuit contends county and municipal court clerks across Tennessee collect traffic debt without checking on a person’s ability to pay, and if they don’t receive payment, they notify the state, which suspends driver’s licenses automatically, also without inquiring about the driver’s ability to pay.
As a result, many people drive without knowing their license is suspended, the lawsuit states. Still others knowingly drive on a suspended license to get to work or medical appointments because they have no other transportation, the lawsuit adds.
The lawsuit further states thousands of low-income Tennesseans are stopped for minor traffic violations each year and charged with driving on a suspended license, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Subsequent offenses can garner a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“Defendants’ policies and practices thus trap indigent Tennesseans in a vicious cycle of debt from which escape is virtually impossible,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs contend their rights to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution are being violated.
Gibbs has been battling driver’s license suspension since he was a teenager and owes Rutherford County nearly $1,150. To get his license, he would have to pay that amount in a lump sum along with a $236 state fee, neither of which he can afford, the lawsuit states.
Robinson, who suffers from ulcerative colitis and liver cirrhosis, as well as internal bleeding from chronic stomach ulcers, all requiring 20 prescription medications, lives on disability payments of $759 a month, well below the poverty level for a Tennessee family, according to the lawsuit.
His license was suspended in August 2016 after he failed to pay $441 for speeding and failing to maintain valid insurance in Wilson County.
This leaves him unable to drive to a gastroenterologist in Nashville and likely will keep him from traveling to see a liver transplant specialist at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, putting his health and the opportunity to have a transplant in jeopardy, the lawsuit states.
Sprague, a single mother of five, was working as a waitress at Waffle House when she got a traffic citation for speeding and failure to have proof of insurance. The fines for both were $50, but with litigation taxes and other costs brought the total to $477.50.
Unable to pay, she lost her license and has since been unable to find a higher-paying job so she can afford a bigger apartment and make enough to support her family.
“Her family thus remains separated, with her children living in separate homes,” the lawsuit states.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.