Driver's licenses at stake for court-cost scofflaws

Driver's licenses at stake for court-cost scofflaws

June 11th, 2011 by Andy Sher in Local - Breaking News

NASHVILLE-For years, thousands of Tennesseans found guilty of various crimes have gotten away with not paying fines, court costs and litigation taxes. One estimate pegs the resulting revenue loss to state and local governments at $1 billion or more.

But lawmakers hope the free ride is coming to a screeching halt under legislation passed in May by the General Assembly.

The bill requires the state Safety Department to revoke a person's driver license if he or she is more than 12 months past due in paying penalties.

Judges can extend payment deadlines for six months in hardship cases. If necessary, delinquent drivers can pay in installments if they can't swing the average $500 in litigation taxes, court costs and fines in one fell swoop.

The bill takes effect July 2. Because it's not retroactive, it won't apply to old fines.

House sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, said he brought the bill because "it's been a long-known fact that there's a lot of money across the state owed by criminals who have been convicted and don't pay their court costs.

"One of the reasons for that is that ... there was nothing to punish them with, to give them any incentive to pay," Gotto said.

Court clerks, including Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell, are hailing its passage.

"I'm thrilled to death with it," said Tidwell, estimating Hamilton County is losing millions of dollars in unpaid fees, costs and fines.

"Word gets around real quick that there's no real stick to making them pay. ... You can't put people back in jail for failure to pay their costs."

See Sunday's Times Free Press for complete coverage.