Pay court fees, or lose your license

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By Damon Lawrence

As circuit court clerk, Kim Nelson doesn’t have the power to hold someone in contempt of court or put them in jail for not paying fines or court costs.

She does, however, have a tool at her disposal that could get people’s attention.

In 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam signed Public Chapter No. 504. According to Amanda Hughes with the Administra-

tive Office of the Courts, the law states, “courts shall report to the Department of Safety unpaid court costs, fines and/or litigation taxes related to criminal violations where violation occurred on or after July 2, 2011 and remain delinquent one year after disposition of the charges. These violations will suspend the defendant’s driver’s license until they have paid or established a payment plan and remain current.”

Nelson said her office received notification a few weeks ago that the Department of Safety is ready to accept Roane County’s files for license suspension.

“Yesterday, my collections clerks and I participated in a statewide conference call/online tutorial for interfacing our Criminal Costs Suspension Records Report with the DOS (Department of Safety),” Nelson said. “Now that DOS is ready to receive these files, we will begin submitting license suspension records immediately for those that have failed to pay their costs within the one year time frame.”

Nelson said a preliminary report produced 444 files for cases that qualify for license suspension.

“After that report has been reviewed for errors, we will submit the report to DOS and the suspensions will take place immediately,” she said. “The statute does not require that a notice be sent out prior to the suspension so people with unpaid court costs need to be aware that their driver’s license may be at risk.”

Nelson said she’s hopeful the driver’s license suspension program will be effective in helping her office collect fines and court costs.

“This license suspension program is something we can do and are mandated by law to do and it does not require the approval of the judge,” she said.

“What people need to understand is that this is not discretionary on our part. The state legislature through this statute has mandated that the court clerks prepare these reports and submit them to the DOS.”

The law allows a person unable to pay any portion of assessed litigation taxes, court costs and fines to apply to the court for a one-time order staying the license revocation.

“An order to stay the revocation of the license shall be granted if the court finds that the person would experience extreme hardship from the revocation of the license and that no other means of transportation are reasonably available to the person,” the law states.

“Grounds for finding of extreme hardship are limited to travel necessary for employment or serious illness of the person or an immediate family member.”