Fowler v. Johnson (Michigan)

In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt and failure to appear. Many of these people are too poor to pay, meaning that thousands of Michiganders are punished simply for being poor.

On May 4, 2017, Equal Justice Under Law — in partnership with the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice and the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) — filed a class action lawsuit, Fowler v. Johnson, against Ruth Johnson, the Secretary of the State of Michigan to end this 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.

Our Clients

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

Adrian Fowler 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.

Timeline: Fowler v. Johnson

May, 4, 2017: Equal Justice Under Law filed the initial complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Michigan’s Secretary of State

On that same day, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction

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.”

June 20, 2017: Equal Justice Under Law filed a brief in reply to the State of Michigan

July, 7, 2017: Equal Justice Under Law responded to the State’s Motion to Dismiss

November 15, 2017: Phil Telfeyan appeared at a hearing in Michigan to argue on behalf of the Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction

December 14, 2017:  The federal court granted a preliminary injunction against Michigan’s wealth-based driver’s license suspension system. Read the opinion here: 2017-12-14 Michigan Opinion

December 28, 2017: The Sixth Circuit granted a limited, 30-day stay, specifically holding that “The State has not demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its challenge to the district court’s ruling on procedural due process.” The appeals court has remanded to the district court for the limited purpose of allowing the district court to provide further details about the injunction imposed on the state. Read the Opinion Here: A8, 2017-12-28 C Stay

January 5, 2018: In response to the Sixth Circuit remand, Judge Linda Parker offered modified preliminary injunction language: “this Court intended to enjoin Defendant from suspending any further driver’s licenses of individuals because of their inability to pay their traffic debt until the State: (1) provides drivers a hearing where they have the opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay; (2) provides reasonable notice to drivers of the hearing; and (3) institutes alternatives to full payment for those unable to pay (e.g., realistic payment plans or volunteer service).” Read the Order here: 31, 2018-01-05 C Order to Appear

January 24, 2018: Judge Linda Parker amended the preliminary injunction: “IT IS ORDERED that Defendant is enjoined from suspending any further driver’s licenses of individuals because of nonpayment of any fine, cost, fee or assessment under Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.321a unless and until Defendant or another entity: (1) offers drivers the option to request a hearing where they have the opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay a fine, cost, fee and/or assessment; (2) provides a hearing when requested1; (3) provides reasonable notice to drivers of the hearing opportunity; and (4) institutes alternatives to full payment for those unable to pay (e.g., realistic payment plans or volunteer service).”

February 8, 2018: The Sixth Circuit ordered a stay pending briefing on whether the plaintiff have standing. The decision was purely procedural, and the court gave no indication that it had changed its minds about the likelihood of success on the merits.

February 26, 2018: We filed a Motion to Certify Class and an Amended Complaint, pending the court’s approval. The Amended Complaints includes two new named Plaintiffs.


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