Fowler v. Johnson

Michigan’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses was designed to coerce payment - but this practice can never accomplish its intended goal. No punishment can increase the likelihood that a person will pay a debt that he or she is unable to pay. 

Michigan, like many other states, suspends the driver's license of any person who fails to pay any court-ordered fine, fee, cost, or restitution (including minor traffic tickets) regardless of the reason for nonpayment. That is, the state suspends the licenses even of people who are too poor to pay. 

Plaintiffs Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris are both single mothers of young children living in Detroit, a city with a notoriously inadequate public transportation system. Both were initially cited for minor traffic infractions, and both suffered license suspensions because they were unable to pay their traffic tickets. Ms. Fowler has been forced to turn down higher-paying jobs in the city's suburbs because she cannot get there by bus. Ms. Harris has frequent doctor's appointments for a chronic medical condition, and she is often late or misses appointments entirely because she cannot drive herself there.

We are challenging this practice on the grounds that it violates Equal Protection and Due Process rights as well as the fundamental right to intrastate travel (a right recognized in the Sixth Circuit). The law is counterproductive -- attempting to coerce payment by taking away people's ability to drive, thereby impeding their ability to work and earn money -- and therefore fails rational basis review. The law also punishes people simply for being poor, a violation of their substantive due process rights. Automatic suspension also deprives impoverished drivers of a protected property interest, their driver's licenses, without an ability-to-pay hearing, a violation of their procedural due process rights.

Judge Linda V. Parker of the Eastern District of Michigan granted our motion for preliminary injunction on December 14, 2017, reasoning that our procedural due process claim is likely to succeed and ordering the state to stop these unlawful suspensions. The injunction was modified on January 24, 2018, and is currently stayed pending appeal in the Sixth Circuit.


case details

The Complaint

Order Granting Our Preliminary Injunction

Order Amending Our Preliminary Injunction

Status: Preliminary injunction stayed pending appeal in the Sixth Circuit

Date Filed: 05/04/17

Plaintiffs: Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, on behalf of proposed class of over 100,000

Defendant: Ruth Johnson, Michigan Secretary 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



This lawsuit seeks to  put a stop to unlawful suspensions and restore the licenses of tens of thousands of Michigan drivers. Already, it has spurred legislative action ending Michigan's punitive Driver Responsibility Fee system.