NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Justice reform groups are challenging a Tennessee law they say unfairly punishes the poor by revoking driver's licenses due to unpaid court fines.
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice and other groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Nashville federal court against Gov. Bill Haslam, Attorney General Herbert Slatery and other state officials, The Tennessean reported (http://tnne.ws/2hYEYPd).
The lawyers are seeking class-action status and name two Nashville men, James Thomas and David Hixon, as lead plaintiffs.
Thomas, who is homeless and disabled, is barred from getting a driver's license because he has been unable to pay $290 in court fines, the lawsuit said. Davidson County court records show he owes about $470 more for a dismissed theft charge and second trespassing conviction.
"These are not people who are running out on their debts," said Claudia Wilner, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. "It's people who can't afford to pay, and it's not their fault they can't."
Since the law went into effect in 2012, only 7 percent of people who lost their licenses because of unpaid fines have been able to get them back, the lawsuit said.
Republican Sen. Jack Johnson, of Franklin, said he sponsored the bill at the request of court clerks who were struggling to collect fines.
The issue has spawned similar lawsuits in other states, including Virginia and California, according to Wilner. But she said Tennessee's law is unique in that it requires no notice to an individual whose license is being revoked.
The lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville to declare the law unconstitutional, reinstate licenses that have been revoked under the statute and waive reinstatement fees.
A spokesman for Slatery said the attorney general's office is reviewing the lawsuit.
Information from: The Tennessean, www.tennessean.com
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