Just five months after Equal Justice Under Law filed our case against Michigan’s Drivers’ License Suspension laws that unfairly punish drivers who are poor, a package of bills was introduced in the state House of Representatives targeting “driver responsibility fees,” a surcharge that the Michigan Secretary of State puts on various traffic violations including driving on a suspended license. These fees can amount to several thousand dollars. The legislature already had decided to phase out the fees by 2020 but the current proposal — revisiting the issue in the first session after our court challenge — would speed that process up by two years.
Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) said, “Far too many working people who received a ticket and paid their fine were hit with new impossible surcharges, often costing them their licenses, and then their jobs, and then their ability to pay off the mountain of debt.”
Speaker Leonard is right. Driver responsibility fees are indeed devastating and can force a driver into unemployment and worse. But low-income drivers without driver responsibility fees can, and often do, face the same fate because Michigan suspends licenses for failure to pay any court cost, including tickets for simple mistakes such as making an improper turn on a red light.
“We applaud Michigan’s state legislature for taking an important step to address this discriminatory practice,” said Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law. “Our lawsuit on behalf of two Detroit mothers shows that suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay fines unfairly target people who are poor and reduce the likelihood of people paying back their debts to the state — without licenses, people can’t drive to work; without work, people can’t pay off their fines.” But, Telfeyan continued, “Much more needs to be done to fix the problem. That is why our lawsuit challenges the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay across the board.”
This package of bills shows that Michigan lawmakers agree with Equal Justice Under Law that these laws trap Michigan’s drivers in a cycle of poverty. The legislature could still come to see that the practice must be stopped completely. In the meantime, the question of whether Michigan’s policy is constitutional is pending in the Eastern District of Michigan, and we hope for an initial ruling from the judge soon.
To read more about our case, please visit our litigation page HERE.