WMD Law Group News: Criminal court deadbeats can lose driver's license

Monday, November 21, 2011

Criminal court deadbeats can lose driver's license

Under a new law that critics say unfairly punishes the poor and disadvantaged, the state can now take driver's licenses away from criminal defendants who fail to pay their court costs and fines within a year of their cases closing.

The law's supporters argue it will allow court clerks to collect millions of dollars a year in fines and fees that are largely ignored. In Davidson County alone, $369.4 million of $423.6 million in assessed court costs and fines went uncollected from 2000 to 2010.

"The taxpayers are having to foot the bill for operating the court system," said Tommy Bradley, the acting Davidson County criminal court clerk and brainchild of the legislation. "The purpose of fines and court costs is to pay all that."

Opponents say the law is counterproductive because it will make it harder for defendants to drive to work and make the money they would need to pay the fees.

"This makes it even harder for them to re-enter society as productive citizens and get their life back on track," Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner said. "We don't live in New York City. We have a good bus system, but it doesn't go everywhere."

Kalen Jones, who is on probation in Davidson County and owes more than $1,000 in court costs, said he drives to work at a factory job.

"I depend on myself," he said, "so I guess I wouldn't have a way to work."

The law took effect last month and applies only to offenses charged after July 2. The legislation is expected to net the state $5.2 million and local governments $6.5 million a year, according to an analysis prepared by the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee.
Deaner said the clerks should stick to the tools already at their disposal because the new law will unfairly punish poor people, including innocents who have their cases dismissed "on costs," which means the charges are dropped but the defendants are still on the hook for some costs.
Garnishing wages and placing liens on bank accounts also are options available to clerks trying to collect unpaid court costs and fees, but Bradley said that requires working with a private collection agency that keeps more than 20 percent of the proceeds. Last year, Davidson County created a "collections court" docket that forces offenders to appear before a judge and answer why they haven't paid their bill and how they'll pay it.

General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland, who presides over the docket, said that while revoking driver's licenses has its drawbacks, the courts have to try something.
"We feel like we owe it to the taxpayers to try to do something to collect that money," Moreland said. "The bad part of it is, when they lose their license, our citation docket just gets bigger and bigger and bigger."
That's because many people who lose their license will continue to drive anyway and get caught. That will mean more charges and more fines, and critics argue it will trap many defendants in a vicious cycle.

A driver's license "is deeply ingrained in the fabric of your daily existence, and to allow a financial situation to determine whether you lose that or not seems unfair," Nashville defense attorney Patrick McNally said. "I think that just pushes them down further."

'Safety valves'

The law includes provisions that would allow judges to stay the revocation of a defendant's driver's license if that person sets up a payment plan with the court. Jonathan Carpenter, who is on probation in Davidson County and owes more than $900 in court costs, said that kind of flexibility will be key.
"I understand they need their money," he said, "but revoking licenses is just going to make it harder to pay and get people stuck in the system."

Judges also can stay a revocation for 180 days "in case of hardship," but travel would be restricted to employment- or illness-related travel.

"There's all kinds of safety valves," said state Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, and the legislation's sponsor. "It's not just the hammer comes down."

Tennessee isn't alone in its effort to increase collections of court costs and fines. Facing steep budget cuts, state court systems across the country are experimenting with a variety of solutions.

A new Wyoming law will allow an Internet-based system for collecting court costs and fees to be created and also gives the state's Supreme Court the ability to reduce costs and fees for defendants who pay them electronically.

From The Tennessean August 11,2011

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