Good news out of Tennessee, via Christian Farias: a federal court has struck down the state’s modern debtor’s prison system.

In Tennessee, if you fail to pay court fines and other fees associated with an arrest or imprisonment for more than a year, your driver’s license is revoked. While it may not be as punitive as rounding up debtors and locking them up again (which obviously severely restricts their ability to pay off their debt), it basically serves the same purpose. Someone without a valid driver’s license will find their ability to earn income restricted. Driving to and from work with a revoked license just raises the risk of being fined or arrested, placing residents even further away from settling their debts with the government.

The lawsuit was brought by two men who’ve been unable to make regular payments and have been placed even further behind by having their licenses taken away. Their struggles are briefly described in the court decision:

In short, Thomas and Hixson both live in severe poverty and both owe court debt related to past criminal convictions. Thomas is totally and permanently disabled. Hixson has spent time in recent years living in a homeless shelter after a period of incarceration. Each man struggles to afford the basic necessities of life and is unable to pay the court debt assessed against him. Because they failed to pay their court debt for over a year, Thomas and Hixson have both had their driver’s licenses revoked by TDSHS [Tennessee Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security].

The state believes this is an effective deterrent and one of the only ways to guarantee repayment of fines. In fact, a spokesperson for TDSHS has already stated that the ruling is “disappointing” and the agency is reviewing its “legal options.” This suggests TDSHS thinks license revocation works, rather than just disproportionately punishes the poorest residents of the state. The district court, however, disagrees with this assessment.

A scheme that revoked the driver’s licenses of non-indigent court debtors after one year of nonpayment would pass rational basis review, because the threat of revocation would plausibly serve as a method for coercing those people into paying their debts. (First Memorandum at 36–37.) Under the Griffin line of cases, however, the court must specifically consider whether the scheme’s lack of an indigence exception is itself rational. Revocation would not be an effective mechanism for coercing payment from a truly indigent debtor, because no person can be threatened or coerced into paying money that he does not have and cannot get. (Id. at 37.) The numbers bear that ineffectiveness out. From July 1, 2012, to June 1, 2016, TDSHS revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, costs and/or litigation taxes; only 10,750 of those people—about 7%—had their licenses reinstated. (Docket No. 64 ¶¶ 107–08.) If Tennessee’s revocation law were capable of coercing people into paying their debts in order to get their licenses back, it would be doing so. The overwhelming majority of the time, it is not.

This is part of the court’s analysis of the law and its legality. As precedent holds, a law that affirmatively punishes poor people for being poor is unconstitutional, as it violates both Due Process and Equal Protection principles. Tennessee’s law fits the criteria.

Under a long and well-established line of Supreme Court precedents, a statute that penalizes or withholds relief from a defendant in a criminal case, based solely on his nonpayment of a particular sum of money and without providing for an exception if he is willing but unable to pay, is the constitutional equivalent of a statute that specifically imposes a harsher sanction on indigent defendants than on non-indigent defendants.

The court’s lengthy examination of the law is worth reading — especially by federal judges in other states with laws like these. But this is the upshot: the law makes bad situations worse, driving poor people further into poverty. In addition, the state’s records show it is completely ineffective on its own terms — either as a deterrent against non-payment or an efficient way to collect on debts owed.

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.


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.

The court then goes on to note the cycle created by this revocation — which can lead to additional arrests and/or fines — just digs a deeper hole for the state. It creates additional debts that have almost zero chance of being repaid. It’s nothing more than doubling down on what already isn’t working.

Fortunately, there are some on the law enforcement side welcoming this ruling.

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.”

The attorneys for the pair of residents — Claudia Wilner and Josh Spickler — are hoping this ruling results in another favorable ruling in the near future. The pair is also suing on behalf of the 250,000 state residents who’ve had their licenses revoked for not paying traffic tickets. As it stands now, the state has sixty days to come up with a plan for reinstating all revoked licenses affected by this ruling and submit it to the court for approval. Reinstatement may be stayed during the inevitable appeal, but for now, the state cannot continue to revoke licenses when someone has shown an inability to pay.

It’s a big decision, even if its jurisdictional reach is limited to the state of Tennessee. If this is upheld on appeal, it will cover the four states that make up the Sixth District. Although this has been slightly altered in recent years, Ohio still engages in this practice. In Michigan, a state appeals court judge blocked a similar law late last year. (That decision is currently being appealed.) Kentucky is the only state in the district without a law like this on the books, putting it a step ahead of its district competition.