Protecting the Rights of Drivers Who Are Poor

The State of Michigan—like many other states—uses driver’s license suspension as an extra punishment for people who are poor. If a person cannot pay his or her routine traffic fines or court costs, then the state suspends their driver’s license. In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt and failure to appear, meaning that thousands of Michiganders are punished simply for being poor.

Such wealth-based schemes not only trap our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty, but they make no sense. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. Furthermore, residents with suspended licenses cannot fulfill daily responsibilities: taking their children to school, caring for elderly family members, or going to the doctor’s office.

Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that goes far beyond a fine. It is an attack on a person’s independence, pride, and character. As a nation, we encourage our citizens to be self-sufficient. To take away someone’s ability to drive simply because they are too poor to pay a fine is unfair, unjust, and un-American.

Our Clients

Our clients Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris are both residents of Detroit and are both mothers of young children.

Adrian Folwer supports herself and her three-year old daughter with a part time job at X-Men Security, bringing home about $700 per month. Because of unpaid traffic violations, the State of Michigan has suspended her driver’s license. During an ice storm, her daughter developed 103 degrees of fever while she was at work, so Adrian drove home to care for her. She was pulled over for speeding. Since it was an emergency, the officer let her go, but citied her for driving with a suspended license. This new ticket cost almost $600. When she went to courthouse to say she couldn’t pay, they told her that if she didn’t pay within three weeks, a warrant would be issued for her arrest.

Since there is no viable public transportation option that runs between the city and suburbs, Adrian can’t take a higher-paying job in the suburbs. Instead, she has settled for a part-time, minimum wage position located in the city of Detroit that doesn’t even cover her basic monthly expenses. Without a driver’s license, Adrian has no hope of paying back her debt to the state, trapping her in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Kitia Harris is unable to work due to a physical disability diagnosed in 2014: interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure. She supports she and her eight-year old daughter on about $1200 per month in disability. When she was unable to pay for a routine traffic violation, the State of Michigan suspended her driver’s license.

Kitia has medical appointments at least twice a month at her doctor’s office, a thirty-minute drive from her home. She’s unable to ride the bus because her medical condition makes it unsafe for her to stand for more than a few minutes, so she’s often late to her appointments or has to cancel when she can’t find someone to drive her. Her very health is at risk simply because she was too poor to pay a traffic ticket.

If Kitia and Adrian had enough money to pay their fines, the state never would have suspended their licenses. They only lost their ability to drive because they are poor. And now, they are stuck in a cycle of poverty and worsening physical difficulties that overshadows their lives.

Our Case

On May 4, 2017, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class action lawsuit against Ruth Johnson, the Secretary of the State of Michigan. Our lawsuit alleges that the Michigan Department of State is running a wealth-based drivers’ license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty. This is the beginning of the process to end the state’s unjust system and restore driving rights to tens of thousands of residents.

We filed this lawsuit in partnership with the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice and the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).

Click here to read the complaint: 1, 2017-05-04 P Complaint

Or here to read the Motion for a Preliminary Injunction: 2, 2017-05-04 P PI Motion

In June 2017, the State of Michigan filed a response to our lawsuit. “The state’s response makes no meaningful attempt to defend Michigan’s suspension law, instead raising procedural technicalities that are not applicable in this case,” says our Executive Director Phil Telfeyan. “Most importantly, the state fails to justify this irrational law that unfairly punishes people who are poor.”

Read our reply brief here: 13, 2017-06-30 P PI Reply

Read our response to the State’s Motion to Dismiss here: 15, 2017-07-21 P Dismissal Reply

Selected Media Coverage

(for additional media coverage, please contact our Communications Department at

TV & Radio

“Lawsuit Targets DWP (Driving While Poor)” for Michigan Radio/NPR by Tracy Samilton on May 10, 2017


“Old Fines Strand Drivers, Crimp Region’s Workforce” by Chad Livengood for Crain’s Detroit Business on August 6, 2017

“Driver’s License Suspensions Hurt the Poor in Michigan” by Niraj Warikoo for the the Detroit Free Press on May 24, 2017

“Too Poor to Drive?” Op-Ed by Phil Telfeyan for The Crime Report on June 7, 2017

“The State Making Money Off Poorest Drivers” by Kate Briquelet for The Daily Beast on March 8, 2017

“Michiganders Fight Policy for Driver’s License Suspensions” by David Wells for Courthouse News Service on May 8, 2017

“Lawsuit Challenges Michigan Driver’s License Suspensions” from US News and World Report. From the original Associate Press story by Ed White on May 5, 2017

“MI Lawsuit Targets License Suspensions Over Traffic Debts” by David Krajicek for The Crime Report on May 5, 2017

“Detroit Court Gets Tough on Traffic Tickets” by Sarah Alvarez for Bridge Magazine on June 12, 2017



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