FOX13 Investigates: Could you be too poor to drive?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Could you be too poor to drive?

It could happen when an unpaid ticket spirals into you not having a valid driver’s license.

Not being able to legally drive can hurt your ability to keep a job and provide for your family. It could also lead to more tickets if you get pulled over again.

Willie Spates is facing this dilemma.

He drives, although he should not.

“I lost my license when I was about 19 or 20 years old,” Spates told FOX13. “Throughout the years I’ve been stopped a couple of times and charged with not having a license or insurance.”

His driver’s license was suspended 17 years ago because he did not pay speeding tickets, court costs and late fees that followed.

“At that time I think I was working for Baskin-Robbins or something of that sort,” Spates said. “I didn’t make enough money.”

Spates did manage to save $4,000 - enough money, he though, to clear his driving record.

“I get my clothes on and dress all neat, go downtown, and I’m going to get this taken care of today,” Spates said. “And so they started counting off all these papers.”

Court documents FOX13 obtained showed Spates has 23 unpaid tickets dating back to 2004 from Shelby County and the City of Memphis.

They include driving with a suspended license, no insurance or registration.

According to the court documents, Spates owes the City of Memphis $2,290 for unpaid tickets and penalties.

In Shelby County, Spates owes $4,117.44.

To the state of Tennessee, the amount is $1,469.00.

The total amount due for him to get a valid license is $7,876.44.

FOX 13 asked Spates why he continued to drive when he knew he had unpaid tickets and fees.

“I asked myself that same question,” Spates said. “My main excuse is I have to get to work. I didn’t mind paying, but I didn’t have the job. I didn’t have the funds. I was not financially stable enough to pay what they were asking of me.”

Dr. Elena Delavega is an associate professor of social work at the University of Memphis and an expert on poverty in Memphis and Shelby County.

She said a lack of transportation, including access to adequate public transportation, makes it hard for people like Spates to get to work. "

Taking the license away from somebody takes away their ability to do work and actually pay the fines. It makes no sense,” Delavega said.

She said an invalid driver’s license nearly 22% of Memphians and nearly 17% of people in Shelby County face.

“If you have $240 a week, even $300, when your rent is $700, the $150 fee or fine is absolutely impossible to pay,” Delavega said.

FOX 13 reached out to the City of Memphis Clerk’s Office. They told us the courts set fines and late fees, not them.

Deputy Chief Court Clerk Walter Person told us “driving is really essential to doing well in Memphis, and driving illegally you end up in a bad situation.”

The clerk’s office offers two programs called Drive While you Pay and Time to Pay . Both are payment plans for people saddled with outstanding city tickets and late fees.

The driver’s license is reinstated while the driver pays off tickets and fees in installments, but it doesn’t cover tickets in the county or anywhere else.

Call it a contract. Miss a payment and the contract is broken. The driver has to start over.

“So if you are not making a good faith attempt, you are breaching, violating the law and subject to the consequences of those actions” said Person.

Spates told FOX 13 he checked out both programs, but like thousands of people in Memphis and Shelby County working odd end or temporary jobs, he couldn’t guarantee steady payments. So he gets behind the wheel to drive and rolls the dice as to whether he will get stopped again.

“Yes they want their money. And I’m not asking for anything free here. I’m asking them to waive some of these tickets that are 10 and 15 years old. And allow me room to breathe,” Spates said.

The clerk’s office had an amnesty program, where drivers could pay off half the value of outstanding tickets and fees. The program expired December 31.

City Clerk Myron Lowery said he promises to bring it back in July for a limited amount of time.

As for Spates, he hopes to save enough to money to pay off the tickets and fines so he can drive legally once again.