Cooper: Bill ends vicious driver cycle

Cooper: Bill ends vicious driver cycle

July 21st, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Chattanooga police traffic investigator Joe Warren examines information from a driver he pulled over in June.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

The scenarios had become vicious cycles for all too many Tennessee drivers.

Driving infraction. License suspended. Monetary fine. Can't drive. Can't pay fine. Can't work. Loss of job.

Or, driving infraction. License suspended. Must work. Stopped again. Jailed. Can't work. Family falls apart.

They were scenarios nearly 126,000 state drivers found themselves potentially facing during 2017 and 2018 combined.

Now, thanks to the Tennessee legislature, there is a way out.

On Monday, Gov. Bill Lee participated in a signing ceremony to mark the passage of a bill that will allow Volunteer State drivers with unpaid traffic citations, fines and fees the ability to receive a payment plan based on their financial situation. More importantly, it will allow such drivers to obtain a restricted license to continue driving to work or school while paying off their debt.

The bill does a number of things that will allow Tennesseans who want to help themselves to do so. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It does not negate any fines that are owed but allows drivers to pay them over time, as long as they keep paying them. And if they can work, they can earn the money to pay the fines rather than having to quit or be fired from their job because they can't drive or are in jail.

It also allows them to legally drive to their job rather than to stay at home, be forced to find alternate transportation or continue to drive but without a valid license, risking further charges. The restricted license allows them to travel to work, school or their place of worship.

It even allows those whose license was suspended before July 1, when the law went into effect, to petition the court to enter into a payment plan and obtain a restricted license.

To us, this is the type of common-sense legislation that allows those attempting to get on their feet and establish themselves from falling into an abyss that churns them around and never allows them to get their heads above water.

Yet, it still demands accountability. The license remains restricted until the driver fully pays the money owed or the amount is waived by the courts. Indeed, it requires the state Department of Safety to notify a driver who is not in compliance with a payment plan, gives that driver 30 days to comply, and suspends the license if the driver does not get into compliance.

Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, a libertarian/conservative political action group which participated in last week's signing ceremony, said criminal justice reform was the No. 1 issue on its 2019 legislative agenda.

"The legislature today ended an unjust and outdated policy that criminalized poverty and made it harder for Tennesseans to be productive members of our communities," Tori Venable, state director of the organization, said after House passage of the bill in April. "Ending this misguided policy enables people to retain a reliable mode of transportation to continue to work and pay their fines.

"This legislation has been a major issue for our organization and we are pleased Tennessee's criminal justice system is moving to one that is smarter on crime and softer on taxpayers," she said. "We thank the legislature for paving the path to prosperity and removing this barrier to opportunity for Tennesseans who want to continue to work."

The organization's legislative agenda had noted, "Our criminal justice system should prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and provide second chances to those who deserve them."

We hope legislators will continue to examine such issues — alternative sentencing, expanded access to vocational and educational programs, and ending overcriminalization, among them — in attempting to reform criminal justice.

During the 2019 legislative session, members also eliminated criminal record expungement fees for certain convictions and encouraged sentence alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

The driver bill was shepherded in the House by Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and in the Senate by Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis. It came on the heels of a 2018 federal court ruling that said it was unconstitutional for the state to revoke or suspend driver's licenses over unpaid court costs.

The measure passed the House and the Senate unanimously but received little fanfare in a legislative session that featured the passing of an educational savings account bill.

It was co-sponsored in the House by Hamilton County delegation members Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, and Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge.

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