Tennessee Defends License Suspensions at Sixth Circuit

CINCINNATI (CN) – Tennessee urged the Sixth Circuit on Tuesday to overturn an injunction that would make it hold indigency hearings before it can suspend people’s driver’s licenses for traffic debts.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued the preliminary injunction in October 2018 following a class action by drivers whose licenses were suspended when they were unable to pay fines and costs associated with traffic tickets.

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (AP Photo/Dan Sewell)

The motorists claim the Tennessee statute that authorizes such suspensions effectively discriminates against the poor in violation of their equal protection and due process rights.

Trauger, a President Clinton appointee, agreed with the argument that license suspensions cause irreparable harm because driving is “central to economic life in Tennessee.”

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

The judge did, however, limit the injunction, primarily because of the state’s argument that immediate reinstatement of licenses and prevention of future suspensions would “impose additional administrative burdens that would tax TDSHS’s already limited resources.”

To balance the concerns of the drivers and the state, Trauger required the TDSHS, short for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, to conduct indigency hearings for those who request it, whole  continuing to collect license-reinstatement fees from drivers who can afford it.

Alex Rieger, an attorney for the state, argued Tuesday before the Cincinnati-based appeals court that its 2019 decision in Fowler v. Benson applies here.

The Fowler ruling upheld a similar license-suspension policy in Michigan, finding the state had a legitimate interest in suspending the licenses of those who cannot pay fines and court costs.

Rieger argued the Fowler case should be used to reverse the district court’s injunction, saying the Tennessee statute “does not exist to punish the poor.”

The attorney argued there is no fundamental right to a driver’s license because it is a “state-created property interest.” He also said Tennessee has a legitimate interest in upholding traffic laws and collecting fines from unlawful drivers.

Since the injunction was issued, Rieger added, Tennessee has modified the statute so that indigent drivers can request payment plans allowing them to recover their licenses while paying their debts.

Class counsel Claudia Wilner told the panel meanwhile there are currently more than 200,000 indigent drivers in the Volunteer State with suspended licenses.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a President George W. Bush appointee, asked how the advent of payment plans has affected the drivers.

Wilner said there is no evidence in the record regarding the payment plans because they were instituted after the case was resolved by the district court. She did, however, point out that many class members cannot afford to pay anything and are therefore not helped by the plans.

“You are inflicting different punishment on different categories of people solely because of indigence,” the attorney said.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Danny Boggs, appointed by President Reagan, asked how the statute is different than state law that requires drivers have valid insurance.

The attorney said the insurance requirement has a rational basis because it ensures the safety of drivers, but “there is no rational reason to single out this group of people” for license suspensions.

In his rebuttal, Rieger agreed that “indigence is a sad thing,” but pointed out that one of the lead plaintiffs received a $10,000 settlement while his license was suspended and did not use the money to pay off his $700 traffic debt to reinstate his license.

Both attorneys declined to comment following the arguments.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., appointed by Clinton, also sat on the panel. No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.

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