New Report on Driver’s License Suspension

Driven By Dollar Pic 2Today, Legal Aid Justice Center released a new report, Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt, about how states strip drivers’ licenses for unpaid court debt. The report is an important addition to the national conversation about Drivers’ License Suspension laws. Equal Justice Under Law contributed to the report — and also has two ongoing cases challenging such laws in Michigan and Montana.

The report states: “License-for-payment systems punish people — not for any crime or traffic violation but for unpaid debts. Typically, when a state court finds a person guilty of a crime or traffic violation, it orders the person to pay a fine or other penalty along with other administrative court costs and fees. If the person does not pay on time, the court or motor vehicle agency can — and in some states, must — punish the person by suspending his or her driver’s license until the person pays in full or makes other payment arrangements with the court.”

Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, Phil Telfeyan, says, “Losing a license is devastating. 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. This system traps people who are poor in an impossible cycle of poverty. It needs to end.”

The report is already receiving some national press — please check out a piece in the Washington Post and in The Detroit News.


Class Action Lawsuit in Montana

IMG_6706On August 31, Equal Justice Under Law filed a landmark class action lawsuit to stop Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or fines.

Losing a driver’s license can be devastating, especially in a state like Montana with few public transportation options. Thousands of Montanans can’t get their children to daycare or school, keep medical appointments, make a trip to the grocery store, or even drive to work. Montana’s policy traps people in an impossible cycle of poverty: they cannot afford to reinstate their licenses without steady employment, but they are unable to work without licenses.

This is what happened to Michael DiFrancesco, a 22-year old resident of Montana who has never been charged with a traffic violation. Michael doesn’t have a license simply because he was unable to pay a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was underage. His court debt has now ballooned to over $4,000. Without a license, it’s difficult for Michael to travel to his job as a construction worker, so he experiences intermittent unemployment as well as periods of homelessness. This is not how our justice system is supposed to work.

Michael is just one of thousands of people across the country living below the poverty line who have been affected by discriminatory license suspension practices. Yet, amazingly, until recently, these laws have gone unchallenged. Equal Justice Under Law is working to change this by leading the charge in challenging these discriminatory laws.


Parking Ticket Stands Between Mother and Son

Joyce Davis hasn’t been able to see her son in two years — all because of unpaid parking tickets.

 

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Joyce’s son, Antwan Ramond Rankin is an inmate at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. Because Joyce can’t afford to pay her outstanding parking tickets — which combined with penalties and interest amount to nearly $1,500 — she has lost her driver’s license and now has an outstanding bench warrant.

Michigan Department of Corrections won’t allow visitors with warrants into state prison facilities because, they say, it would be too “administratively cumbersome” to figure out why the bench warrant was issued, and violent offenders could cause disruptions. Although safety is no doubt paramount, Joyce and other visitors like her threaten no one.

Joyce Davis’ only “crime” is being too poor to pay a parking ticket.

Because Michigan issues bench warrants against people who are too poor to pay court debt, the inevitable result is that indigent families are driven further apart. The fact that Joyce doesn’t have enough money to pay her parking tickets shouldn’t keep her from seeing her son.

The warden at Lakeland, Bonita Hoffner, could grant Joyce access to her son, but so far, Ms. Hoffner is ignoring Joyce’s appeal.

Equal Justice Under Law has contacted the warden several times, requesting that Ms. Hoffner direct her staff to allow visits from family members who pose no threat to the prison population and who only have outstanding warrants for court fines and fees that they do not have the ability to pay. Lakeland staff already verifies information before denying someone visitation rights; it shouldn’t be too cumbersome to discover if the warrant is only for a parking ticket.

The warden has not responded to our communications.

Earlier this year, we filed a class action lawsuit against Michigan’s Secretary of State for suspending driver’s licenses of people with safe driving records who are too poor to pay the debts they owe to the state for traffic violations or court costs. Such wealth-based schemes not only trap our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty, but they make no sense. Because of these unfair punishments, 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.

And in this case, this discriminatory policy is keeping one mother from seeing her son. While you’re spending Labor Day with your family, think of Joyce Davis who hasn’t been able to see her son in two years — all because of a parking ticket.


Challenging Wealth-Based Drivers’ License Suspensions in Michigan

IMG_1169 Michigan (Lansing)On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class action lawsuit against the Secretary of State in Michigan for suspending people’s drivers’ licenses simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or fines.

Our clients, Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, are both residents of Detroit and mothers of young children. They each were stopped for routine traffic violations, but when they could not afford to pay the fines — because they live well below the poverty line — the state suspended their drivers’ licenses. Now, Adrian has had difficulty finding and keeping a job, and Kitia, who suffers from a physical disability, can’t drive herself to her medical appointments.

This case was filed in conjunction with Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) both in Detroit.