Municipal Courts and Suspension of Driver’s Licenses
for Failure to Pay Traffic Debt
By Kristin Ellis Berexa, attorney at Farrar & Bates, LLP
Does the government violate the United States Constitution when it suspends the driver’s licenses of indigent Tennessee drivers who, because they are indigent, have not paid their traffic fines/costs? In Robinson v. Purkey, a federal court in Nashville has decided that the government does, indeed, violate the Constitution if it suspends the licenses of indigent drivers for failure to pay traffic debt.1 Because municipal courts initiate the suspension process by sending failure to pay notices to the state with respect to traffic fines and costs, the opinion issued by the federal court requires an examination of, and possible change in, municipal court policy.
In Tennessee, the constitutionality of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay debt was first questioned in Thomas v. Haslam, a class action challenging the state’s statutory scheme for suspending licenses for failure to pay criminal court debt.2 In Thomas, the court found that it is unconstitutional to suspend driver’s licenses of individuals who fail to pay criminal court costs and fines, unless the debtor receives notice of and an opportunity for an ability-to-pay hearing, also known as an indigency hearing. Neither the state nor the criminal trial courts offer indigency hearings for fines and costs prior to license suspension. The federal court ordered the state to cease all driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of criminal court debt unless or until the state lawfully adopts a process for providing an exception to the suspension based upon a debtor’s inability to pay. The Thomas case is currently on appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. As a result of the Thomas case, the Department of Safety is no longer suspending driver’s licenses on the basis of an individual’s failure to pay criminal court debt.
At this point, you may be wondering why the Thomas opinion is important to cities because city courts do not handle criminal charges, but only municipal violations. The Thomas case is, in effect, a companion case to Robinson v. Purkey. In Robinson, the issue is whether driver’s licenses can be suspended for failure to pay traffic debt i.e, traffic fines, costs and taxes. As most cities have municipal courts and handle traffic violations within their city limits, this issue is extremely important to any city across the state with a municipal court that handles traffic violations.
This issue may sound familiar to some of you as it was a topic of presentation at the Risk & Insurance Symposium in August. A copy of the symposium presentation can be found here. Included with this presentation were several sample documents, including:
In June of 2018, the Robinson court held that it was unconstitutional to suspend a driver’s licenses for the non-payment of traffic debt, unless the indigent driver received notice of and an opportunity for an ability to pay or indigency hearing. In short, a constitutional violation would occur if the government suspended the license of an indigent driver for failure to pay traffic debt.
The court cited three reasons why suspending an indigent driver’s license for failure to pay traffic debt is a constitutional violation. First, the court found it is a violation of the Fundamental Fairness Doctrine under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution in that you cannot treat indigent defendants differently than non-indigent defendants, or in other words, the government cannot treat someone more severely simply because of his or her economic status.3 Second, the court found that the suspension of driver’s licenses of indigent drivers without affording them an indigency hearing violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. The government cannot impose harsher terms on a debtor merely because the financial obligation is to the public treasury rather than a private creditor i.e., a private creditor could not suspend someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay his or debt.4 Third, the court found that a driver’s license is a constitutionally protected right and cannot be taken away without first offering the individual an indigency hearing.5 If that individual is unable to pay, the government cannot suspend his or her driver’s license.
In October of 2018, the Robinson court issued a follow-up opinion — this time enjoining the state from suspending any licenses for failure to pay traffic citations, unless the state itself holds an indigency hearing prior to the suspension or the local government/municipal court holds an indigency hearing.6 The State of Tennessee has appealed this latest order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. While this case is on appeal, the Department of Safety is no longer accepting any failure-to-pay notices from local governments requesting that a driver’s license be suspended, unless the local government provides certification that an ability to pay hearing has been provided.
If a local government wants to request a license suspension for a failure to pay, the request and certification should be sent by U.S. mail to the attention of:
Department of Safety and Homeland Security
1150 Foster Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37243
What is the practical effect on municipal courts of the Robinson opinion? The short answer is that cities can no longer use the suspension of a driver’s license as a debt recoupment method for those drivers who fail to pay their traffic debt, unless the city adopts an indigency hearing policy and/or indigency policy. Cities can still recoup traffic debt in the following four ways:
- Collect in same manner as a judgment in a civil action;7
- Utilize a collection agency;8
- Hold a debtor who willfully refuses to pay in contempt;9 and
- Utilize payment plans10.
The Robinson opinion only prohibits the use of suspending driver’s licenses as a debt recoupment method unless an indigency hearing is offered. Since Robinson, several local governmental entities have successfully implemented indigency hearing policies for traffic court.
Also important to note is that the Robinson opinion only addresses license suspension for failure to pay traffic fines and costs. Driver’s license suspension can still occur for a driver’s failure to appear in court, violation of financial responsibility law, and conviction for offenses indicative to public safety, such as DUI, vehicular homicide, etc.
This article addresses the current state of the law, but this issue will continue to work its way through the courts over the next couple of years. The state legislature could also tackle this issue in the next legislative session and revise the statutory scheme for driver’s license suspensions. We will continue to provide updates as the law continues to develop in this area.
1Robinson v. Purkey, 326 F.R.D. 105 (M.D. Tenn. 2018).
2Thomas v. Haslam, 329 F.Supp.3d 475 (M.D. Tenn. 2018).
3Robinson, at 326 F.R.D. at *153-59 (citing Griffin v. Illinois 351 U.S. 12 (1956)).
4Id. at *159-61 (citing James v. Strange, 407 U.S. 128 (1972)).
5Id. at *161 (citing Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 (1971)).
6Robinson v. Purkey, No. 3:17-CV-01263, 2018 WL 5023330 (M.D. Tenn. Oct. 16, 2018).
7Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(a).
8Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(e).
9Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-24-105(a).
10Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(d)(3)-(4).
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