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.