by Osborne Burks and Lee Harris, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Driving remains the most prevalent mode of transportation in Tennessee. We drive to work, to school, to the grocery store, to medical appointments, to our houses of worship, and to our kids’ sporting events. Some joke that we even drive to our mailboxes.
What’s more, up to 75 percent of jobs in the three biggest cities in our state are not reasonably accessible by public transportation.
With this in mind, we have to make sure citizens have reasonable access to a driver’s license.
Yet, over the last eight years, our state has revoked hundreds of thousands of licenses. Men and women all across the state have had their licenses revoked, often not because of their inability to safely operate a vehicle. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans have been stripped of their licenses, usually because of an outstanding court debt, the unintended consequence of a state law passed in 2011.
But change may be coming.
Recently, a federal district court judge ruled that the state action to revoke licenses in this way violated protections in the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the court declared that the Tennessee law violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the driver’s license revocation law simply punishes people with lower incomes. It denies individuals with lower incomes access to a license because they have court debt, court debt that they cannot afford to pay.
We believe Tennessee’s revocation law is also impractical. As the court even said, “because driving is necessary for so many important life activities, some Tennesseans whose licenses have been revoked continue to drive, despite the state’s revocation of their privileges.” People have to continue to use their car to get to work and get back home. In fact, across the state, an estimated 93.4 percent of workers drive to their place of employment.
Finally, Tennessee’s revocation law produces a debt cycle that is nearly impossible to escape. The 2011 state law means people are vulnerable to repeated interaction with law enforcement for driving without a license, new court cases, and even more court debt. As the court put it: “a license revocation based on court debt from a single conviction may begin a cycle of subsequent convictions and mounting court debt that renders the driver increasingly unable to amass the resources necessary to get his license back.”
The good news, therefore, is that this federal court decision could mean that hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans might now have a right to have their license reinstated.
The bad news, though, is that the State of Tennessee filed an appeal of the district court ruling in an attempt to overturn the decision. Let’s hope, for the sake of our fellow Tennesseans, that the appeal is dropped. Let’s hope that access to driver’s licenses in our state is expanded so that people can get on with their lives, so they can get to their medical appointments, participate in our economy, and yes, even drive to their mailboxes on occasion.
(Lee Harris is Mayor of Shelby County and Osborne Burks is his Special Assistant for Legislative Affairs.)