It’s a little bit less of a crime to be poor in Tennessee following a federal district judge’s order to the state to stop taking people’s drivers licenses because they owe court fees they can’t pay. It’s one of those laws that reveals itself to be not about justice but about punishing poor people for being poor—being unable to pay fees leads to losing your legal right to drive, which makes it difficult to impossible to work in a state where more than 94 percent of people drive to work, which means you have even less money to pay the fees you couldn’t pay to begin with. But Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that this is unconstitutional, pointing out exactly what’s going on with this law:
Judge Trauger criticized the Tennessee law not just because it has the effect — an unconstitutional effect, she said — of treating the wealthy and the poor differently.
She also suggested that the law is bad public policy because it has the opposite effect of what was intended — spurring more people to pay off their debts.
“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,” she wrote.
Around 40 states have similar laws, and 10 million people currently don’t have licenses because of them. Trauger’s decision only affects Tennessee, where around 100,000 people could get their licenses back, but it may show the way to fighting the laws in other states. A Michigan law is already being challenged in court.
Tennessee is already beginning to reinstate drivers licenses, though some people are reporting problems early in the process.