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Robinson v. Purkey

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

October 5, 2017

FRED ROBINSON, ASHLEY SPRAGUE, and JOHNNY GIBBS, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
DAVID W. PURKEY, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in his official capacity, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before 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 preliminary injunction.

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On 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.

         A. Tennessee's Driver's License Laws Regarding ‘Traffic Debt'

         The 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 Debt.”

         Based 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.)

         Tennessee 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. § 55-50-502(d)(3).

         Subsection (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.[1] 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).

         At the 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.

         Finally, 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.

         B. Robinson and Sprague's Traffic Debt

         Robinson 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 defendant.

         1. Robinson

         On June 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.)

         Purkey 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 ...

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