United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
FRED ROBINSON, ASHLEY SPRAGUE, and JOHNNY GIBBS, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
DAVID W. PURKEY, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in his official capacity, et al., Defendants.
A. TRAUGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
the court is Fred Robinson and Ashley Sprague's Motion
for Temporary Restraining Order Directing Immediate
Restoration of their Driver's Licenses (“TRO
Motion”) (Docket No. 24), to which Tennessee Department
of Safety and Homeland Security (“TDSHS”)
Commissioner David W. Purkey has filed a Response (Docket No.
47), and Robinson and Sprague have filed a Reply (Docket No.
61). The court held a hearing on that motion on October 4,
2017 (“TRO Hearing”). For the reasons below, the
TRO Motion will be granted and Commissioner Purkey will be
ordered to direct the TDSHS to reinstate the driver's
licenses of Robinson and Sprague pending a hearing on a
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
September 13, 2017, Sprague and Robinson, along with their
co-plaintiff Johnny Gibbs, filed the Complaint in this matter
against various defendants involved in the administration of
Tennessee's driver's license system, in particular in
Wilson and Rutherford Counties. (Docket No. 1.) According to
the Complaint, Robinson is a resident of Murfreesboro, and
Sprague is a resident of Lebanon. (Id. ¶¶
14-15.) Robinson's driver's license was suspended on
September 16, 2016. (Id. ¶ 99.) Sprague's
license was suspended in September 2015, although she claims
not to have been aware of the suspension until May 2016.
(Id. ¶¶ 109, 114.) Purkey, the only
defendant subject to Robinson and Sprague's proposed TRO
(Docket No. 24-1), is the Commissioner of the TDSHS, the
agency charged with the administration of Tennessee's
Uniform Classified and Commercial Driver License Act, Tenn.
Code Ann. § 55-50-201.
Tennessee's Driver's License Laws Regarding
State of Tennessee generally prohibits drivers from using its
streets and highways without a driver's license. Tenn.
Code Ann. § 55-50-301(a)(1). An applicant for a
Tennessee driver's license must furnish certain required
information confirming her eligibility and submit to an
examination, including “an actual demonstration of
ability to exercise ordinary and reasonable control in the
operation of a motor vehicle.” Tenn. Code Ann.
§§ 55-50-321, 55-50-322(a)(1)(A). In certain
statutorily prescribed situations, an individual who has
previously obtained a valid driver's license may have the
associated privileges rescinded, through revocation,
suspension, or cancellation of the license. Tenn. Code Ann.
§§ 55-50-501, 55-50-502(a) & (b). As relevant
to this case, the TDSHS “is authorized to suspend the
license of an operator or chauffeur upon a showing by its
records or other sufficient evidence that the licensee,
” inter alia, “[h]as been finally
convicted of any driving offense in any court and has not
paid or secured any fine or costs imposed for that
offense” or “[h]as failed to appear in any court
to answer or to satisfy any traffic citation issued for
violating any statute regulating traffic.” Tenn. Code
Ann. § 55-50-502(a)(1), (a)(1)(H)-(I). The plaintiffs
refer to the payment obligations pursuant to which a
driver's license may be suspended under Tenn. Code Ann.
§ (a)(1)(H) & (I) collectively as “Traffic
on the briefing of the parties and representations by counsel
at the TRO Hearing, the parties appear to agree that TDSHS
itself is not charged with the initial collection of Traffic
Debt, which is instead overseen by county and municipal court
clerks. If a driver fails to pay Traffic Debt, however, the
relevant clerk provides notice of the nonpayment to the
TDSHS, which then effects the suspension of the driver's
license. Tennessee's license suspension statute
“authorize[s], ” but does not by its language
require, the TDSHS to suspend the license of an individual
who is eligible for suspension for nonpayment of Traffic
Debt. Robinson and Sprague contend that, despite TDSHS's
statutory discretion, its policy and practice is to
automatically suspend the license of any driver who is
subject to a notice of nonpayment. For the purpose of the
instant motion, it is sufficient for the court to observe
that there has been no suggestion, by Purkey or otherwise,
that Robinson and Sprague's licenses were suspended for
any reason other than the TDSHS's receipt of notices of
Traffic Debt nonpayment from the relevant clerks. (Docket No.
47, at 3-4.)
law expressly contemplates that a county or municipal court
may offer a driver the option of agreeing to a payment plan
that would allow her to retain her license, despite failing
to pay her Traffic Debt immediately in full:
A person whose license has been suspended, pursuant to
subdivision (a)(1)(H) or (a)(1)(I), subject to the approval
of the court, may pay any local fines or costs, arising from
the convictions or failure to appear in any court, by
establishing a payment plan with the local court or the court
clerk of the jurisdiction. Notwithstanding §
55-50-303(b)(2), the fines and costs for a conviction of
driving while suspended, when the conviction was a result of
a suspension pursuant to subdivision (a)(1)(H) or (a)(1)(I),
may be included in such payment plan, subject to the approval
of the court.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(d)(2). The TDSHS is
authorized to reinstate the individual's driving
privileges upon receipt of certification that the payment
plan was approved and the driver has “satisfied all
other provisions of law relating to the issuance and
restoration of a driver license.” Tenn. Code Ann.
(d), however, does not on its face require any court to
“approv[e]” payment plans or require any court or
clerk to “establish” a payment plan
system. Nor does it set forth any specific
situation in which a driver would be entitled to a payment
plan or any standard to which payment plans must adhere.
Moreover, the provision of the statute governing the
apportionment of costs for payment plan administration
appears to acknowledge that some counties may participate in
the offering of such plans while some counties may not:
Any county that participates in the payment plan
authorized by this subsection (d) shall pay to the state any
expense required to be paid for state implementation of this
subsection (d). The payment shall be divided pro rata among
the counties to which this subsection (d) applies. The
payment shall be made prior to the implementation by the
county of this subsection (d).
Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(d)(6) (emphasis added). For
jurisdictions that do offer payment plans, there is no
statutory requirement that the plan be calculated to be
affordable based on the driver's economic status.
See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-502(d)(3)-(4).
TRO hearing, however, counsel for Commissioner Purkey
premised his argument against a temporary restraining order,
at least in part, on a reading of subsection (d) that would
not only guarantee a driver the opportunity for a payment
plan, but also the right to have that plan consider and
account for the driver's indigence:
[T]he state process here meets-goes beyond what is required.
There is-first of all, once someone is cited for a traffic
violation, there is the ability to contest the citation. Once
that's done then, again, the second step is under the
payment plan. If you can't pay, you get a plan. . . .
[A]nd they have a right to be heard on that
indigence-indigency claim. So that-they've had all that.
(Statement by Michael Alan Meyer, TRO Hearing (transcript
pending).) At this stage in proceedings, the court is unable
to conclude whether or to what extent Tennessee's various
local clerk's offices share Purkey's interpretation
of the statute. Although the court will, in short order,
presumably have the opportunity to be more fully briefed on
the local defendants' positions on the matter, the court
must, for the purpose of the TRO Motion only, rely on the
evidence before it, which consists primarily of the statutory
text and Robinson and Sprague's accounts of their own
Traffic Debt experiences.
state law imposes additional reinstatement fees when a driver
whose license was suspended becomes eligible to restore her
driving privileges. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-12-129. Such
fees vary, based on the particulars of the individual
suspension, and TDSHS regulations permit individuals with
reinstatement fees over $200 to enter into payment plans.
Those plans, however, require a $200 down payment along with
a $25 processing fee and minimum quarterly payments of $300.
Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1340-02-05-.02, -.04, -.10.
Robinson and Sprague's Traffic Debt
and Sprague have filed 28 U.S.C. § 1746 unsworn
declarations under penalty of perjury attesting to their
respective economic circumstances and their experiences under
the state's system for the suspension of driver's
licenses for the nonpayment of Traffic Debt. (Doc. Nos. 16
& 28.) Both describe series of events whereby they,
despite being financially unable to satisfy their Traffic
Debt, were not afforded the opportunity for any
accommodations based on indigence and accordingly had their
licenses suspended. The below facts were taken primarily from
Robinson and Sprague's declarations and are recounted
without prejudice to future refutation or impeachment by any
24, 2016, while driving his sister's car in Wilson
County, Robinson received misdemeanor traffic citations for
speeding and failing to maintain valid insurance, for which
he was assessed fines in the total amount of $441. (Docket
No. 16 ¶ 5.) Unable to pay that sum, Robinson inquired,
through pro bono counsel, into whether Wilson County
authorities were willing to place him on a payment plan.
Through that inquiry, he learned that Wilson County does not
permit partial payments or payment plans for traffic tickets.
(Id. ¶ 8.) In order to reinstate his license,
Robinson now must satisfy his $441 in Traffic Debt, as well
as pay a minimum of $200 (plus a $25 fee) toward a total of
$323 in reinstatement fees. (Id. ¶ 11.)
has been able to locate and produce correspondence from TDSHS
to Robinson regarding the suspension of his license. In a
letter from TDSHS's Director of Financial Responsibility,
Susan Lowe, dated November 23, 2016, Lowe informed Robinson:
Our Department was notified by [the] Wilson County [General
Sessions] Clerk that you failed to satisfy citation
#[*******] issued to you on June 24, 2016. To avoid
suspension of your driving privileges, our Department must
receive certification from the Clerk of the Court that the
citation has been satisfied. If the certification is not
received, your driver license, driving privileges, and
privilege to obtain a ...