County Clerks in Tennessee automatically suspend the driver’s license of persons who fail to pay their traffic debt within a 30-90 day window. No inquiry is made into a defendant’s ability to pay, and there are no payment plans. A person who never had a driver’s license but has traffic debt will be assigned a license number and then the Department of Safety and Homeland Security suspends it. Statute authorizes suspension but the Court insist on automatic suspensions. Restricted driver’s licenses are largely unavailable, costly and only allow people to travel to and from work. Further, there is a reinstatement fee for suspended driver’s licenses.
Preliminary injunction issued. DSHS must:
- Cease automatic driver’s license suspensions for failure to court fines and fees
- Reinstate all licenses suspended for nonpayment of traffic debt
- Waive reinstatement fees.
- Licenses can only be suspended if legislature enacts a statute mandating a fact based inquiry as to the defendant’s ability to pay and the court finds that the person can afford to pay their traffic debt.
Attorney General has filed a Notice of Appeal with the 6th Circuit.
The Sixth Circuit granted Defendant’s motion for a stay pending appeal.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction. It found that the Tennessee law which permits the State to suspended driver’s licenses for the nonpayment(s) of fines associated with certain traffic violations “does not run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment.” (quoting Fowler v. Benson, 924 F.3d 247, 252 (6th Cir. 2019)).
The Court explained that it was bound by the Sixth Circuit’s recent decision in Fowler, which evaluated a nearly identical license-suspension policy in Michigan and involved many of the same legal issues.
However, in this case, Plaintiffs argued that M.L.B. v. S.L.J., 519 U.S. 102 (1996) required the Court to evaluate wealth-base distinctions with heightened scrutiny even outside the criminal-justice context—an argument that was not before the Sixth Circuit in Fowler. The Court disagreed, finding that M.L.B. did not compel heightened scrutiny in this case. M.L.B involved the termination of parental rights, which is “‘a unique kind of deprivation’ that is not true of other civil penalties[,]” including driver’s license suspensions. (quoting M.L.B, 519 U.S. at 118). The Sixth Circuit therefore determined that there was no valid reason to depart from the conclusion in Fowler that equal protection challenges on the grounds of wealth-discrimination shall be scrutinized with rational basis review. (citing Fowler, 924 F.3d at 261.) The Court further found that Fowler controlled the review of Tennessee’s license-suspension policy under a rational basis standard, relying on Fowler’s holding that “[s]tates have ‘legitimate interests in promoting compliance with court orders and in collecting traffic debt’ and a state’s ‘choice to wield the cudgel of driver’s-license suspension for nonpayment of court debt dramatically heightens the incentive to pay.’” (quoting Fowler, 924 F.3d at 262–63).
For these reasons, the Court held that Tennessee’s license-suspension policy is constitutional and that the district court abused its discretion in enjoining the policy.
Although Chief Judge Cole agreed that Fowler was binding precedent, he believed that Fowler was wrongly decided. If the Court were not constrained by Fowler, he would have affirmed the district court’s order granting the preliminary injunction.
Chief Judge Cole explained that even under rational basis review, the Tennessee law is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiff class, which consists of Tennessee residents who cannot now and could not afford to pay their traffic debt at the time their license was suspended. He reasoned that suspending residents’ driver’s licenses as punishment for their inability to pay furthers no legitimate state interest and “actively impedes the ability of the state to collect, as it hinders the ability of residents to earn money to pay their debt.” (citing Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 399 (1971).)
Chief Judge Cole deemed “[t]he idea that license suspension will encourage indigent residents to pay their traffic debts . . . irrational,” (citing Fowler, 924 F.3d at 272 (Donald, J. dissenting) and Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 670 (1983)), likening attempts to incentivize impoverished residents to pay traffic debt by suspending their licenses to “trying to squeeze blood from a stone.” As long as Plaintiffs remain indigent, he said, “the opportunity to pay a fine or have their license taken away is an ‘illusory choice,’ as an “indigent [person], by definition, is without funds.” (quoting Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235, 242 (1970).) Further, he explained that the suspension of Plaintiffs’ licenses does not necessarily further the State’s interest in compliance with traffic laws—Tennessee residents who violated the same laws were able to keep their licenses upon their payments of fines. As the only difference between Plaintiffs and those residents is their ability or inability to pay, the State impermissibly imposes “a harsher punishment on one resident than another for the same offense on the sole basis that one is unable to pay a fine.” (citing Williams, 399 U.S. at 242; Tate, 401 U.S. at 399). Indeed, “the ability to pay fines bears no rational relationship to a resident’s fitness to drive.” (citing Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 17–18 (1956) (plurality).)
Chief Judge Cole opined the Court’s reversal of the preliminary injunction will regrettably enable the State “to deprive thousands of residents of their only means of obtaining food, accessing medical care, or getting to work.” (citing Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 539 (1971).) He found the law not only “cruel and unwise,” but also unconstitutional. Nevertheless, he explained that because of Fowler, only a change from the en banc court or the Supreme Court would enable the Sixth Circuit to rectify this gross injustice.
On July 30, 2020 the Sixth Circuit denied Plaintiffs’ petition for a rehearing en banc.
Chief Judge Cole dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc, asserting that the court erred in deciding Fowler v. Benson, 924 F.3d 247 (6th Cir. 2019), and again erred here in failing to use the opportunity to revisit Fowler’s holding as an en banc court. Judge Cole argued that the practice of driver’s license suspension as punishment for nonpayment of court debt is unconstitutional wealth discrimination as applied to the class of plaintiffs in this case because it punishes indigent people more harshly than those who commit the same driving infraction but can afford to pay their debt. He added that this law should fail even under rational-basis review because “it is irrational to attempt to extract funds from indigent residents by taking away their driver’s licenses, thereby making it more difficult for them to make a living and pay their debt.” (emphasis in original).
The district court ordered all proceedings stayed pending the filing and resolution of the Plaintiffs’ petition to the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari.
You can find a detailed summary and case documents via the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse and Civil Rights Corps. Additionally, you can read about a companion case, Thomas v. Haslam.