Tennessee to appeal federal ruling over license revocations

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is appealing a landmark federal court ruling that says it’s unconstitutional for the state to revoke or suspend driver’s licenses over unpaid court costs.

David Purkey, commissioner of the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security, filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, The Tennessean reported . The motion asks the U.S. Court of Appeals to review U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger’s ruling from earlier this month.

Trauger concluded that the revocations are powerfully counterproductive and deprive constitutional due process and equal protection. Her ruling could have wider implications for dozens of other states, since more than 40 allow similar suspensions.

On Thursday, the state attorney general’s office filed a motion for partial stay pending the appeal. In a court filing, the state says it’s not revoking any licenses due to unpaid court fees and has administratively lifted about 237,000 revocations affecting about 118,000 drivers. Older revocations that predate the current computer system are being manually lifted when drivers contact the state, the filing says.

The state is requesting a temporary halt, pending appeal, on its 60-day deadline from the date of the ruling to submit plans for lifting revocations, including automatic reinstatement where legally appropriate.

The state says that plans for automatic restoration would require review of driver’s license records on an individual-by-individual basis, which would be a potentially wasteful use of government resources given the possibility of a reversal.

Tennessee revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses from July 2012 to June 2016 under state law for failure to pay court debts, according to Trauger’s ruling. Only about 7 percent of those licenses were reinstated.

“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,” Trauber wrote.

Josh Spickler is the executive director for Memphis-based advocacy organization Just City and an attorney on the case representing people who have lost their licenses. He said it’s disappointing to see the state challenge the ruling “instead of working to develop better public policy and have more Tennesseans driving safely and legally.”

Megan Buell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, declined to comment on the appeal.