Yesterday, a federal court declared that Michigan must stop suspending driver’s licenses of individuals who cannot afford to pay their court fines or fees. This federal preliminary injunction indicates that it is likely the state has been violating the rights of hundreds of thousands of drivers whose only “crime” was being too poor to pay their court debts.
The federal court first issued a preliminary injunction on December 14, 2017, but the state filed an emergency motion to stay the order in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit stopped the injunction from going into effect for 30 days so that the judge could clarify its terms, which she has now done. Michigan cannot suspend licenses solely for inability to pay until it puts procedural safeguards in place: a hearing at which a person can show indigence and alternatives, such as realistic payment plans or community service, for those who can’t pay their court debt.
The modified injunction also appears to broaden the relief. Whereas the court had previously mentioned only traffic debt, the modified injunction prohibits suspensions based on nonpayment of any court debt. This injunction also recognizes that alternatives to lump-sum payment — such as payment plans or community service — must first be options before licenses are suspended.
Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights nonprofit in Washington DC, filed the lawsuit in May of 2017 on behalf of over 100,000 Michiganders who have had their licenses suspended solely for unpaid court debt.
“This ruling is a major step in breaking the cycle of poverty created by Michigan’s unfair policy,” said Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law and lead attorney in the case. “License suspensions cost people their jobs and only make it less likely that people will be able to pay their debts to the state. We look forward to the day when this system ends permanently.”
This lawsuit was filed in partnership with John Philo, Executive Director & Legal Director of the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice in Detroit, Michigan, and the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).