The Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk says a federal court case that prohibited the state of Tennessee from revoking driver's licenses in certain cases has resulted in fewer defendants paying their fines and fees over the past year.
Vince Dean said he needs the Hamilton County Commission to allocate another $300,000 to offset those decreases, since they help fund employee salaries that are already guaranteed in the budget, and he will address the issue during Wednesday's agenda session.
Dean's announcement comes as Nashville lawmakers push a bill that would have judges evaluate a person's ability to pay on a driving case, put them on a payment plan with a restricted license and then allow judges to revoke that restricted license if a person misses too many payments. That bill cleared the House last week and on Tuesday cleared the Senate's Finance, Ways and Means Committee. It is expected to go up for a full Senate vote next week and would go into effect July 1 if passed.
This is not the first time Dean, a former state legislator who has headed the clerk's office since 2014, has asked for help. In 2016, he requested $300,000 for a different shortfall and said the main factor was the state's reimbursement fee on felony cases, which has remained the same since 2006. Dean's predecessor, Gwen Tidwell, also requested a similar amount of money before him, archives show, and it's not uncommon for clerks to undercollect on court-ordered fines from defendants who either don't pay them or can't afford to pay them.
Collecting fines and costs from defendants is not the only thing Dean's 55 full-time employees in the General Sessions and Criminal Court Clerk's offices do. They handle expungements, scan and file court documents, maintain old and new case files, coordinate dates and times for judges and oversee local bail-bond companies.
But collecting is a challenging issue, since Dean's budget is partially based on those fees and since many defendants either can't afford to pay them or don't stick to a payment plan. In the past, Hamilton County clerks could ask the Tennessee Department of Safety to suspend someone's driver's license if they stopped paying court costs on certain criminal cases. Statewide, this resulted in about 146,000 revoked licenses between 2012 and 2016.
Then came a pivotal ruling last July from Aleta Trauger, a U.S. district judge in Nashville, who ordered the state to stop revoking people's drivers licenses if they were too poor to pay costs. Trauger said the state needed to abide by her ruling "unless or until the state lawfully adopts a process for providing an exception to revocation based on inability to pay."
Dean says this ruling has resulted in noticeable decreases. For proof, he compared monthly revenue totals from before and after that court case, which the state has since appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The revenues, his numbers show, dropped in all but one month. For example, clerks collected $218,472 in September 2017 and $134,741 in September 2018.
There are already a number of rules and state laws that direct who gets what fees. If defendants pay their costs within six months, Dean's office only keeps 5% of that revenue. If they pay within the second six months, his office keeps 50%. On every case, there are several baked-in costs that flow to different state and county accounts. On DUIs, specifically, the state receives $200 for the blood and alcohol test out of Dean's fees to defendants.
Interviews with multiple attorneys and personnel in Hamilton County's justice system suggest there are so many fines that people are confused and end up prioritizing which, if any, they're going to pay. For about a year, the five judges in General Sessions Court have been seeing people with driver's license issues on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There, they help show people what they owe in each court and offer to put them on a payment plan for driving on revoked cases. Sometimes they waive costs if a person is making a good-faith effort to pay even a small amount for multiple months straight.
But there are other courts and fines. General Sessions and Criminal Court have their own separate costs and aren't consolidated, said Chattanooga attorney Rip Biggs. Sometimes a person also has unpaid driving violation judgments against them in City Court. Unpaid, those can result in a person's license being suspended.
City Court also has different payment plan rules from Dean's office, which uses an in-house collections agency to garnish people's wages if they haven't paid for more than a year. If a person owes more than $500 between accidents or traffic tickets to City Court, they have to make a $200 down payment to get onto a payment plan, City Court Clerk Ron Swafford said Tuesday.
And then there are other rules and restrictions. If a person then fails to pay in the correct time frame — which is a monthly due date plus 15 extra days — they can be kicked off the City Court plan. In agreeing to the down payment, a person is also agreeing to pay all of their fines to the city, not just traffic-related ones.
Swafford said City Court implemented that policy in 2017 after people stopped showing up to court.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.