Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Law Enforcement Repeats Holiday ‘No Refusal’ Enforcement

State troopers are using holidays to exercise new powers to demand that suspected drunk drivers give up a vial of their blood against their will.

State officials say they forced nine people who refused breath tests during Department of Safety holiday weekend crackdowns to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. A new law gives police the tools to obtain a warrant to require a blood test.

But officials also say they would not be surprised if the law’s constitutionality were to be tested in court.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone challenges it. Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable that the law will be upheld,” said Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons.

“Is any search warrant invasive? I guess you could argue that, but under our law there is a procedure to seek a search warrant. We have to persuade a judge that there is probable cause that a person is driving under the influence, and if that judge agrees, then we obtain a search warrant,” he told TNReport.

Drivers suspected of drunk driving can refuse to submit to a breath test. Rep. Curry Todd was recently indicted for refusing following his DUI arrest in 2011.

Refusal comes at a cost. Those drivers lose most of their driving rights for a year.

But on holiday weekends when the state lines up judges and nurses or other medical professionals to be onsite with troopers, the refusal option is rendered moot. The judges can issue search warrants on the spot, and the medical professionals can draw the blood.

One driver was forced to submit to a blood test over the Labor Day weekend in Sullivan County, state Safety Department officials say. Over July 4, the number was eight.

Not known is how many drivers submitted to a breath test without protest because they were aware of the new law.

The department declined to release the outcomes of those blood tests, saying the information would be considered evidence in pending criminal cases.

The no-refusal law won narrow approval in the state House of Representatives this year despite hesitance from lawmakers like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who at the time said, “It concerns a lot of people when the government holds people down and takes bodily fluids out. I think you saw that in the close vote today.”

Others in the Legislature say the law is a tool to keep streets safe from intoxicated drivers.

“You’re driving around like a cocked gun, and nothing good can ever come from that,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. “I do agree with the policy, and it’ll be up to some court or some ACLU attorney, I suppose, to decide if this is some invasion of privacy.”

Tennessee’s ACLU chapter says it is so far not engaged in any fights over the no-refusal policy.

David Raybin, a criminal defense lawyer in Nashville, says there’s nothing constitutionally suspect about requiring DUI suspects to fork over their blood.

”If they have probable cause to arrest you for a DUI, they have probable cause to take your blood,” he said. “There’s no constitutional problem with doing that because of the emergency of the situation because the alcohol content goes away so quickly.”

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

No DNA Collected from DUI Suspects Under ‘No Refusal’ Law: State

The blood samples collected from suspected drunk drivers under a new “No Refusal” law are not added to a national DNA database used by prosecutors, according to Tennessee state public safety officials.

“Blood samples obtained by a search warrant from a suspected DUI offender are tested for blood alcohol content only,” Department of Safety Spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said via email. “Those blood samples are not used for any other purpose and are NOT placed in a DNA database.”

“There’s no DNA ever run on those,” said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “I can assure you that’s not the case.”

The state this summer began enforcing a new law that allows cops to seek a warrant to compel people accused of driving under the influence to involuntarily give up a blood sample if they refuse a Breathalyzer or blood test.

State troopers forced eight people to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July holiday weekend during the first test of the new law, DPS said.

A judge on-site issued warrants requiring the sobriety tests of the drivers, who had initially refused. Another 40 people stopped in Anderson, Bradley, Davidson, Maury and Warren counties submitted to the tests without a warrant. The results of those tests are not yet available.

State officials say the blood collected will not be used to bolster the national Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, a database to which Tennessee adds tens of thousands of DNA profiles each year in an attempt to help prosecutors levy charges against crime suspects.

Not least among the reasons is it would be unlawful to do so.

Officials can only collect and keep DNA information from convicted felons and people accused of committing or being a party to a “violent felony,” such as aggravated assault and carjacking. This year, lawmakers added that people charged with five additional crimes would also have to give up DNA samples, including various homicide and manslaughter charges.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in 2011 wanted to expand that list to all felonies, like large-scale theft and drug crimes and DUIs, but the measure went nowhere.

The state collected 14,586 DNA samples from arrestees and 13,778 samples from convicts in the year ended June 2011, according to the TBI. The TBI handles DNA evidence for the major crimes that make it into CODIS and is in charge of examining blood work to measure alcohol or toxicity of DUI suspects.

The statements from TBI and Safety spokespersons conflicted with that of Safety Department Commissioner Bill Gibbons. The TBI is independent of his department.

Gibbons, a former Memphis district attorney, told TNReport on July 17 that the state does retain a database of DNA records for people accused of driving under the influence. “The state does have DNA records on many individuals, and you can run those results, and it really helps in terms of investigating a particular case, and I again, I think it’s to the advantage of everybody,” Gibbons said. And when asked specifically if the state retained a database of DNA records of people accused of DUIs, he said, “Yes, but how long it’s retained, I don’t know the answer to that. But yes, there is a database, so to speak, of that.”

Howver, that’s not accurate, Donnals said later. “I think Commissioner Gibbons misunderstood your question, and I wanted to make sure you had the correct information,” she said via email later the day of the interview.

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Gibbons Promises State Law Enforcement Won’t Abuse Anti-Camping Statute

Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he doesn’t foresee any unintended consequences from enforcement of the bill intended to de-occupy legislative plaza, despite qualms of some lawmakers.

“I can’t speak for any other law enforcement agency, but in terms of our state troopers, I am confident that we will handle any matter that comes up correctly and professionally,” Gibbons said after speaking to the Tennessee Municipal League Monday.  Prior to coming to work for the Haslam administration, Gibbons was the Shelby County district attorney general.

“Right now we’re in a period where we’re making sure that all citizens have proper notice of the new law, and after an ample period of time, we’ll be prepared to enforce the new law,” he said.

However, not all lawmakers share his optimism.

Knoxville Rep. Frank Niceley, the sole Republican holdout when the House voted to pass the bill on Feb. 16, chose not to vote on the bill because of its overly broad nature.

“I was fine with moving the protesters off of the plaza,” Niceley said last week. “I thought that needs to be done, but the way they wrote the bill, it would affect anyone. If you’re out in the country — and the state owns hundreds of thousands of acres of state land — and you accidentally camp on one, well, some overzealous deputy could get you in trouble.”

The controversial de-occupy bill has passed both chambers, been signed by the governor, posted in public spaces and is now awaiting enforcement, which begins March 9.

Liberty and Justice News

Violent Crimes, Prescription Drug Abuses Targeted

The Haslam administration wants to take a stab at cracking down on violent crimes and shrinking the recidivism rate by beefing up prison sentences, a task officials expect will cost taxpayers $6 million annually.

Gov. Bill Haslam is also asking lawmakers to adopt a comprehensive approach to tackling the state’s prescription drug problem by making it easier for law enforcement to track addicts and keep a better eye on ex-convicts by requiring the Department of Correction to take over supervision of parolees.

“While we see an improvement, Tennessee continues to have a violent crime rate that’s above the national average that none of us find acceptable,” the governor said on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The total price tag for the entire package of reforms could be higher, according to Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who couldn’t provide specific cost tallies, but said expenses for the prescription drug and parolee reforms would be minimal. Attempts to reach agency officials for details were unsuccessful as of this posting.

The program would provide a “road map” which would take several years to fully implement. Going into 2012, officials want the Legislature to begin by beefing up punishment for repeat domestic violence offenders, gun-wielding ex-convicts and people involved in gang-related crimes.

“All three deal with areas that (district attorneys), police chiefs and sheriffs have been pushing for years,” said Gibbons. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel here. We listened to law enforcement and tried to act upon their recommendations.”

The administrative initiative would also relax punishment for non-violent drug offenders and send them to drug courts, which Gibbons said would eventually save the state $4 million annually.

The plan would also give law enforcement more tools for identifying and disciplining people who abuse prescription drugs, officials said.

The safety reforms are the product of the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group, a band of commissioners and administrators from 11 state agencies. The plan includes 11 objectives and 40 action steps.

Some of the ideas can be implemented by the administration while others will take legislative approval.

Press Releases

State Issues More Than 6,500 Voter IDs

State of Tennessee Press Release; Nov. 28, 2011:

Department Reminds Citizens that Certain Driver Service Centers will be open on First Saturday of December for Voter ID Issuance Only 

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security announced Monday that during the month of November it had more than doubled the number of photo identifications issued for voting purposes since the end of October. As of November 28, the department had issued 6,566 photo IDs for voting purposes, compared to the 2,385 issued as of October 31. A new state law will require a federal or state-issued photo ID to vote starting in 2012. The law also requires the Department of Safety and Homeland Security to issue photo IDs for voting purposes at no charge.

The number of photo IDs issued for voting purposes includes original photo identification cards (for voters who had never been issued a driver license or photo ID and were not already in the Department’s database) and non-photo driver licenses converted into photo driver licenses. (Drivers in Tennessee age 60 and older may opt to carry a non-photo driver license.)

“I am encouraged by the increase in the number of photo IDs issued for voting purposes. We are making a great effort to get the word out about the new law and the options voters have to obtain photo IDs, if needed. I urge any voter who needs a photo ID to obtain one from the department as soon as possible,” Commissioner Bill Gibbons said.

For citizens who need a photo ID for voting purposes, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security is opening 19 driver service centers this Saturday, December 3, and on the first Saturday of each month through March for the purpose of issuing voter photo IDs only. The centers will be open normal business hours, from 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Driver service centers are open on the first Saturday of each month in the following counties: Davidson (Centennial Blvd. and Hart Lane), Hamilton (both locations), Knox (both locations), Shelby (East Shelby Drive and Summer Avenue), Sullivan, Sumner, Rutherford, Washington, Williamson, Montgomery, Blount, Bradley, Putnam, Greene, and Carter.

To minimize the possibility of wait times during Saturday hours, groups or organizations planning to make a group visit to a driver service center should schedule an appointment by calling Linda Cone at 731-225-0924 or Wanda Adams at 615-251-5300.

In addition, 30 county clerks’ offices across the state are converting non-photo driver licenses to photo driver licenses for voters who need them free of charge.

For more information on the new voter photo ID law, including acceptable forms of photo identification and documents needed to obtain a photo ID for voting purposes, please visit the Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s website at

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s (www.TN.Gov/safety) mission is to ensure the safety and general welfare of the public. The department encompasses the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Office of Homeland Security and Driver License Services. General areas of responsibility include law enforcement, safety education, motorist services and terrorism prevention.

Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

VIDEO: State Law Enforcement Officials Defend ‘Occupy Nashville’ Arrests

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons defended the predawn arrests of 29 Occupy Nashville protesters on Legislative Plaza Wednesday, saying the protesters had plenty of time to pack up and go home.

Gibbons made the comments at a press conference Wednesday morning, adding he decided it was best to make the arrest in the 3 o’clock hour to minimize public disturbance and to give protesters hours to leave the premises.

“We respect and support the right to peacefully protest. We’re simply urging those who want to engage in peaceful protests to adhere to the reasonable policies that have been issued by the Department of General Services. If they choose not to, then it’s our responsibility to take the appropriate enforcement action and we will do so,” said Gibbons.

The commissioner was joined by Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott, who said the troopers making the arrest acted with “incredible restraint.”

Both officials said it is the department’s job to enforce the policies written by the Dept. of General Services and deferred explanation of the policy to that department.

The protesters were issued misdemeanor citations for criminal trespassing, which is a class C misdemeanor. They were released just before 9 a.m.  and await a Nov. 18 court date with the Davidson County General Sessions Court.

Protesters with the Occupy Nashville movement say they plan to meet in a General Assembly at 7 p.m. Friday to determine whether they will remain at the Legislative Plaza location or if they will move to space by the courthouse down the street.

Press Releases

State Troopers Arrest 29 in Occupy Nashville Protest

State of Tennessee Press Release; Oct. 28, 2011: 



NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security early Friday morning enforced a revised state policy that makes the Legislative Plaza, War Memorial Courtyard, and Capitol grounds areas closed to the public from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. daily. The revised policy also states there shall be no overnight occupancy of the state properties.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol, which provides security for Legislative Plaza, War Memorial Courtyard, and the Capitol grounds, asked Occupy Nashville protestors to leave the Legislative Plaza at 3:10 a.m. Approximately two dozen protestors left the plaza without incident. Troopers arrested 29 protestors who refused to leave.  The protestors were transported to the Davidson County Jail where troopers issued them misdemeanor citations for criminal trespassing (a class C misdemeanor). The protestors were released shortly before 9 a.m. A court date has been set in Davidson County General Sessions Court for November 18. A total of 75 state troopers were involved in the curfew enforcement.

“The Department of Safety and Homeland Security took the appropriate action to support the state’s revised policy that the Legislative Plaza is not to be used at night without specific authorization. The policy was revised for security reasons, and the protestors were aware of the policy.  The process was handled by state troopers in a professional manner and without incident.  It is our responsibility to keep the protestors safe on state property, along with citizens who work, live and enjoy downtown.  We all must work together to ensure a safe environment,” Commissioner Bill Gibbons said.

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security enforced the curfew policy at the least disruptive time to citizens who visit, work, and live in downtown Nashville.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s (www.TN.Gov/safety) mission is to ensure the safety and general welfare of the public.  The department encompasses the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Office of Homeland Security and Driver License Services. General areas of responsibility include law enforcement, safety education, motorist services and terrorism prevention.

Business and Economy Featured Tax and Budget

Haslam Comfortable With Brother Lobbying Against Rest-Stop ‘Commercialization’

Gov. Bill Haslam finds himself answering questions again regarding the ongoing watch on his interest in Pilot Flying J truck stops, the Haslam family business.

The issue of the governor’s stake in Pilot rose quickly in Haslam’s campaign for governor in 2010 and has surfaced again in Haslam’s first term with a different twist. The governor’s brother, Jimmy Haslam, CEO of Pilot Flying J, reportedly has sent a letter asking state and federal lawmakers to prevent the commercialization of rest stops on Interstate roadways as states look at ways to boost revenues.

The Haslam family truck stop business would theoretically stand to lose business from a commercial presence at state rest areas. The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported on the letter written by the elder brother, who is also a board member of the National Truck Stop Operators Association.

But Bill Haslam, former president of Pilot, says the matter does not put him in an uncomfortable position as governor, that his brother is certainly within bounds to speak out on the issue and that it’s a bit of a non-issue in Tennessee anyway.

Nevertheless, the latest wrinkle in the issue suggests the governor’s tie to Pilot figures to be watched as long as he is in office.

James Haslam II, father of Bill and Jimmy Haslam, founded Pilot beginning with one gas station. The business has grown into a giant truck stop chain, including a merger approved last year with Flying J, leading to questions about a potential conflict of interest for Bill Haslam as governor. Those questions came from some of Haslam’s opponents in the 2010 campaign, most notably from former Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who ultimately became Haslam’s commissioner of Safety.

“That was something I was involved in way before I became governor,” Bill Haslam said Friday of Pilot and the issue his brother addressed. “I don’t think that’s really on the radar in Tennessee anywhere anyway. So I don’t think it puts me in a difficult position.

“I think his point was, no matter what the business is, if you made an existing investment counting on a certain set of circumstances, the state wouldn’t sell its own right-of-way for other people to use. It’s not really fair to go back and change the law to give one person a preferred position there.”

There hasn’t been much indication Tennessee government officials or elected leaders are at this point interested in commercializing rest areas.

In an email response to an inquiry about the issue from TNReport, TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said her department “has no position on the legislation being proposed by federal lawmakers to reverse the ban on commercial development at highway rest areas, as we do not want to presume to know what is in the best interest of other states in the US.”

“However, we believe that privatizing the operations of our facilities is not in the best interest of the State of Tennessee and would not be compatible with the vision of the department,” Doughty added. “We maintain that commercializing rest areas with direct access to the interstates would compete with businesses located along the interstate exits resulting in fewer option for motorists. We will continue to monitor proposed legislation from all levels of government with regard to our transportation system.”

Delaware recently opened a 42,000-square-foot welcome center on I-95 that the state didn’t have to pay for, according to Delaware has a contract with a retail company, which gives the state a percentage of revenues from the site.

Federal law enacted in 1956 prohibits selling food and fuel at Interstate rest areas, other than from vending machines, at locations built after 1960. Some existing commercial stops had already been built in some parts of the country at the time. The national truck stop organization cites a University of Maryland study that says in states that operate commercial rest areas 50 percent fewer businesses exist at Interstate exits.

Tennessee has 18 rest areas and 13 welcome centers on its Interstate highways.

Bill Haslam was asked by a reporter Friday if his brother should shy away from taking public policy stands.

“No, he definitely shouldn’t,” the governor said. “He’s the CEO of a major Tennessee business that has their interest to defend.

“Actually, that’s nothing new. Pilot’s been talking about that, as has everybody else that has an Interstate-related business, from McDonald’s to everybody else, for years.”

The governor said the principle of the issue is about government changing the rules of the game after they’ve already been established.

“People who make investments off of Interstates and then the state comes in and takes its public right-of-way and lets a private company go into business there, I think the argument is just you’re changing the game,” Bill Haslam said.

Pilot Flying J is established as a Subchapter S corporation, where stakeholders claim gains and losses through their personal tax returns. Pilot became a lightning rod for Bill Haslam in the governor’s race as he refused to disclose his income from the family business, although he did disclose income from investments outside Pilot.

Haslam announced in his initial disclosure statements that as governor he would put his investments outside of Pilot into a blind trust but that he would not put Pilot holdings in a blind trust as governor. Haslam’s position is that the public knows where his income comes from with Pilot so there is no point in disclosing his income from Pilot.

The issue rose again, however, soon after Haslam was sworn in on Jan. 15. His first executive order was to declare members of the executive branch need only disclose what is in state law, same as members of the Legislature, meaning members of Haslam’s cabinet did not have to disclose the amounts of their income from outside sources, although they did have to identify the sources of their income.

That move rolled back an order that had been in place under Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, who required disclosure on income amounts.

Press Releases

New Agency Official: Drivers License Wait Times ‘Unacceptable’

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Aug. 15, 2011:

MEMPHIS, TN – Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons on Monday announced the appointment of Lori Bullard as Assistant Commissioner of Driver Services. Bullard, a 25-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, currently holds the rank of colonel and is the commander the Union Station Precinct in midtown Memphis. Bullard will start her new role as Assistant Commissioner on August 24.

“Lori Bullard has an outstanding record of leadership with the Memphis Police Department. She is driven by a strong work ethic and is known for helping employees do their best. And she has a reputation with citizens in the community she serves as being responsive and accessible. I am confident Lori will successfully lead the employees of the Driver Services Division in delivering better services to the citizens of Tennessee and carrying out their important role in public safety,” said Commissioner Gibbons.

“The Driver Services Division is the face of state government to millions of Tennesseans. I know the average length of time many citizens wait at most Driver Service Centers is unacceptable. I also understand the important law enforcement and homeland security role that the Driver Services Division performs. I am ready for this challenge and look forward to working with the employees of the division,” said Bullard.

As a veteran officer of the Memphis Police Department, Bullard has extensive management and supervising experience, culminating in overseeing the operations of the midtown precinct, with more than 230 officers. In addition, she brings an extensive background in training to her new task.

Many of Bullard’s management and training responsibilities occurred during the time Larry Godwin served as director of the Memphis Police Department. Godwin serves now as deputy commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

“Lori has a wealth of experience in leading employees in a productive and professional manner. She will be a great addition to our team,” said Commissioner Godwin.

Bullard started her public safety career as a Memphis police officer in 1986, assigned to the Metro Narcotics Unit after graduation from the Memphis Police Academy. She was also one of the first six officers to start a community policing program. In 1995 Bullard was promoted to sergeant and was appointed as a recruit instructor at the academy. During this time, Bullard wrote the Memphis Training Academy annual report.

In 2002, Bullard was promoted to lieutenant and remained at the academy in a leadership role until 2002, when she was assigned to MPD’s Special Operations Unit as a supervisor of the Mounted Patrol Unit. As lieutenant, she held other supervisory positions with various units, including Uniform Patrol, Robbery, Felony Assault, and Crime Scene Investigation. In 2008, Bullard was promoted to major assigned to a precinct where she supervised officers, and eventually served as an acting lieutenant colonel, responsible for the daily operations of the precinct.

After a brief assignment back at the Crime Scene Investigation Unit, where she handled administrative duties, Bullard was named commander of the Memphis Police Training Academy. As commander of the academy, Bullard supervised all instructors, managed all aspects of training, and daily operations. In April 2010, Bullard was promoted to the rank of colonel and was assigned commander of the Union Station Precinct. In this role Bullard managed the precinct budget and all personnel. She oversaw all field operations of the precinct, handled citizen complaints, and conducted administrative hearings.

In addition to being an instructor at the Memphis Police Training Academy throughout her career, Bullard also has been an instructor at the Mid-South Training Institute, conducted classes for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, and currently conducts supervision, leadership, and workplace violence and conflict resolution classes for Smith and Nephew and Investigative Techniques Unlimited.

Bullard is a graduate of The University of Memphis with a bachelor of arts degree in English and a minor in criminal justice. She earned a master of arts in education degree from Union University. Bullard has completed hundreds of hours of criminal justice training and is a member of several professional public safety organizations.

Featured Liberty and Justice News

State Looking to Ease Pain of DMV Visit

Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he’s re-examining how often Tennesseans should be required to subject themselves to the anguish and aggravation of visiting a state motor vehicle office.

In fact, Gibbons, whose office oversees drivers license facilities, said he’s even trying to figure out ways to ease the misery of what often seems a nearly intolerable, inescapable encounter with the bureaucratic machinations of state government.

Gibbons and his staff are currently engaged in a “top-to-bottom review” of drivers license examination processes and renewal centers with an eye toward transforming them into “customer-friendly” hubs that get people in and out before they noticeably age or descend irreversibly into madness.

The average wait time across the state is 55 minutes, says Gibbons, but that doesn’t even count the hours it takes to stand in lines that sometimes wrap outside the building and leave people in the sweltering heat for hours before reaching the first kiosk to take a number.

In brainstorming ideas to help shorten up the wait to about 30 minutes, Gibbons said he’s considering whether to give more time between drivers license renewals.

He said he’s looking into Arizona, for example, where drivers only need a new photo and an eye exam once every 12 years.

The downside to that specific system is the state has a harder time keeping track of drivers’ mailing addresses since they don’t need a new ID every time they move, according to Harold Sanders, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. It also means drivers aren’t held accountable for staying up to snuff with the rules of the road since they aren’t subjected to driving tests every few years.

The upside, he said, is it motivates people to drive safely, shortens lines at the driver’s license facilities, and saves the state, and drivers, money.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy said he, too, is looking at that practice but is leaning towards a more modest version of the concept.

“We’re definitely looking at it, and we need to make sure it’s done correctly,” said Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “It entirely takes too long right now to get your driver’s license. We’re trying to make it more customer-friendly.”

He is looking into a Democratic proposal that died in committee last year that would have changed the five-year renewal period to every eight years.

About 1.4 million people wait in lines at their local driver’s license center each year. In Memphis, officials recently had to set up tents and hand out water bottles due to the steamy temperatures.

“Everyone has a driver’s license story,” Gov. Bill Haslam told the Legislature in his first State of the State address last March. He then challenged Gibbons to make the driver’s license offices operate more like a business since the visits serve as many taxpayers’ primary interaction with the state.

The long lines raise questions as to whether the state is equipped to handle a new law that requires people to have some form of government-issued ID to vote. About 130,000 voting Tennesseans will need to get a driver’s license or some form of ID before Election Day, Gibbons said.

“We’re talking, for some people, hours and hours and hours and for some people even days of jumping through hoops,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, which fought the new ID law. “Voting should not be this difficult.”

Gibbons said officials expect to put those people who are seeking a state ID for voting purposes into express lines.

The commissioner said he’s not worried that multiple-hour wait times will trigger a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects against discriminating voting practices.

The long lines are “not in any way limited to communities with a minority population,” said Gibbons, formerly Shelby County’s Attorney General, adding he’s aware there’s been an inquiry with the U.S. Justice Department by Memphis Congressman Steven Cohen into the state’s driver’s license system. Gibbons said wait times are long in metro areas, like parts of Memphis and Nashville, and in more rural areas, like Cookeville and Johnson City.

The commissioner has a few other ideas up his sleeve for driver’s services overhauls, but he said the department won’t have a firm plan of action to reform the drivers license centers until it finishes its top-to-bottom review in early October. Reforms could include:

  • Sending drivers who are reinstating suspended licenses to separate facilities. The most time-consuming task at the driver’s license center is reinstating licenses that were taken away, such as those suspended for a DUI. It takes about 30 minutes to actually process that transaction — not including the time waiting in line. Gibbons plans to designate as many as six offices as reinstatement centers and require those drivers to take their business there, which he says will shorten lines at the other facilities.
  • Better encouragement for people to renew licenses online. Drivers simply renewing their license can do so online, but many still do it in person. To help, the department plans to install electronic kiosks that take photos and issue licenses at the stations. The state already has federal homeland security money set aside for the machines, Gibbons said.
  • Providing driver’s license renewal services at county clerk offices and private entities. Gibbons has inked deals with 30 clerks to open up driver’s license services there. He says he hopes at least another 20 clerks — adding up to half of the state’s counties — will join the bandwagon. He said he’s still working on getting private entities involved.
  • Consolidating service centers. Of the 49 driver’s license facilities, the department plans to ditch the ones that are underutilized or poorly designed. This will move employees around, better staff centers that need more workers and save the state money, Gibbons said.
  • Standardizing centers’ hours of operation. Beginning Aug. 15, all offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
  • Hiring someone to manage driver’s services. Gibbons and Gov. Bill Haslam expect to announce a new assistant commissioner of driver’s services position in the next few weeks. “We’ve never had that one person overseeing the entire operation. I’m not sure why that’s been the case. We’d like to fix that.” is a nonprofit news organization supported by generous donors like you!