For Undocumented Drivers, Nashville Considers Legal Assistance

Mar 28, 2017

In Davidson County, about 4,000 undocumented immigrants come through the court system each year for driving without a license. This otherwise minor offense for U.S. citizens can trigger serious consequences for the undocumented — especially if they plead guilty.

“For an undocumented person, it could mean that they’re separated from their children for an indefinite period of time,” said Wade Munday, executive director of Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), which works with immigrants in the court system.

Taking a page from so-called "sanctuary cities," JFON is now seeking $150,000 in Metro funding to team with the Public Defender’s Office to provide defense attorneys in these cases — a type of legal assistance that isn’t often present in traffic court.

More: Read the plan titled "Protecting Non-Citizen Residents Through Planning and Prevention"

Yet the decisions made in court can carry consequences. There are often two options in driving-without-a-license cases: Plead guilty and pay $45 to finish the case, or pay twice as much and go through driving school — then return to court — to prove completion.

The cheaper option is enticing, Munday said, but by going through driving school, the defendant can avoid a guilty plea and a conviction. That’s crucial, he said, because guilty pleas can become red flags to immigration enforcement.

“Unknowingly, they would have an option to go to a class, try to rectify the situation, and not have a guilty charge on their record,” Munday said.

Munday and the public defender make their case for funding to hire an attorney and a paralegal this week, among 24 innovative Public Investment Projects being heard by the mayor and her advisors.

One requirement of those proposals is that Metro agencies partner across departments, or with outside groups like JFON.

“There’s also a benefit to public safety,” Munday said, “when people from Mexico, South and Central America, see government intervention that benefits them, it helps build trust between those immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies.”