Imagine you're a single parent with a minimum wage job. Making ends meet is nearly impossible. Then one day, you get arrested for a driving infraction. You're suddenly faced with court fees that you can't afford to pay. So the judge revokes your driver's license. Now, you can't drive your kids to school or yourself to work. In a flash, your situation has just turned from difficult to desperate.
But a new federal court ruling stands to change this.
Penalizing the poor
Between 2012 and 2016, more than 146,000 low-income Tennessee residents lost their driver's licenses because they couldn't pay their court costs, and fewer than 11,000 have been able to afford to get them back. For residents who were reliant on driving in order to get to work, this situation has forced them to weigh the risks and benefits of driving on a revoked license - and facing $500 in fines and six months in jail, if caught - to cover their basic needs.
A new directive
There are many reasons you could have your driver's license revoked in Tennessee. For instance, driving under the influence or failing to pay child support may result in license suspension or revocation. However, a U.S. District Court recently found the Tennessee practice of revoking driver's licenses from defendants who can't afford to pay their court fees to be unconstitutional.
According to the court's ruling, this practice unfairly impacts low-income community members. Taking away someone's right to drive because of their financial straits adds further burden to a member of an already vulnerable population, making it more difficult for them to get to work and less likely to be able to pay their court debt in the future.
The ruling represents a win for low-income defendants. It marks a critical step to making the law more equitable to all people regardless of income.