Update on Fowler v. Johnson Case: Michigan’s Driver's License Suspension Scheme

clouds 2.jpg


October 3, 2018

On October 3, 2018, Executive Director Phil Telfeyan appeared before a panel of judges from the Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals to argue that the district court properly enjoined Michigan’s Secretary of State from automatically suspending the licenses of Michigan residents who cannot afford to pay their court fines and fees.

The preliminary injunction — originally issued by District Judge Linda Parker on December 14, 2017 — ordered the Secretary of State to stop suspending the licenses of individuals who fail to pay without first providing hearings to determine whether they are able to pay and adequate notice that such hearings are available. 

 On behalf of Plaintiffs Kitia Harris and Adrian Fowler, Mr. Telfeyan argued that thousands of Michigan residents lose their licenses simply because they cannot pay their traffic tickets, despite the state’s insistence that licenses are suspended only when people fail to appear in court.

Ms. Harris got a citation for impeding traffic.  License suspension is not a possible penalty for impeding traffic — it’s a very low violation.  She never got a court date . . . she never missed a court date.  Someone can have a license suspended without ever missing a court date, without ever having a court date, without ever having a failure to appear.
— Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director at Equal Justice Under Law

Michigan’s courts do not provide opportunities for people to appear in court and avoid license suspension by asserting that they cannot pay their fines.  And even in the rare cases when such processes are available, drivers are never notified of their existence. 

Judge Thapar of the Sixth Circuit acknowledged an argument that the Supreme Court has ruled that “notice has to be detailed enough that the violator knows that they have [the] opportunity [to assert their inability to pay the full amount].”  This detailed notice is conspicuously absent in Michigan. 

As Mr. Telfeyan pointed out, “There is no notice anywhere [on the citation, on the court website, or in the statute] that someone can go to a hearing and raise their inability to pay, as required [by the Supreme Court] and under Michigan state law.”

 “What the [district] judge is enjoining here,” Mr. Telfeyan explained, “is a statute that does not give any process, that does not give any opportunity for a hearing, and actually requires the Secretary to suspend licenses automatically.”  

We are now waiting for the Court of Appeals to decide whether the injunction — which has been stayed pending the Secretary’s appeal — will be upheld.