Fowler v. Johnson

Michigan’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses was designed to coerce payment - but this practice will never accomplish its intended goal though. For people who are unable to pay, no punishment will increase the likelihood of them paying a debt if they do not have the money or the means to pay it.

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.

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

Kitia Harris is unable to work due to a physical disability diagnosed in 2014: interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure. She supports herself and her young 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.

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).”


case details

The Complaint

Motion for Preliminary Injunction

District Court's Preliminary Injunction Order

District Court's Amended Preliminary Injunction

Status: Active

Date Filed: 05/04/17

Plaintiffs: Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated

Defendants: Ruth Johnson, in her official capacity as Secretary of State of the Michigan Department of of State

Jurisdiction: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Partners: Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice and COTS, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter



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.