Tennessee’s War On The Poor

TN court clerks resist suspending licenses over unpaid fees. Some worry new law on unpaid fees further hurts poor

Starting July 1, clerks throughout Tennessee gained the power to begin suspending driver’s licenses if court fees and fines go unpaid for a year. But not a single license has been suspended, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Even Tommy Bradley, chief administrative officer for the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office and the man who wrote the law, is holding off until Aug. 1 to give debtors one last chance to pay at least something.

Other clerks are questioning whether to suspend licenses at all, out of logistical or moral reservations.

“I just want to wait and see,” said Wilson County Circuit Court Clerk Linda Neal. “I’m afraid this law is going to be hurting the people who would really like to put out the effort to pay and they simply can’t.”

Bradley acknowledges there is “widespread” opposition to the law, which he wrote to help collect hundreds of millions in uncollected court costs.

The new law also has created more work for attorneys. Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner said more clients are asking judges to have their fees waived, so as to avoid having their licenses suspended.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip. I think, frankly, a lot of the clerks out there recognize that they’re chasing a turnip, that these folks don’t have the money,” Deaner said. “Most of the people in the criminal justice system, they are indigent, they are living below the federal poverty guideline. When you then suspend their driver’s license, you make it harder for them to find employment, find resources, find ways to pay these debts.”



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