Punishing Low-Income Drivers for Being Poor

A judge says Michigan's license suspension scheme is probably unconstitutional. But the state government wants to keep it.


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In Michigan, the state suspends your driver's license if you don't pay your traffic tickets. But three weeks ago, a federal judge in Flint enjoined that practice when it's applied to the very poor, ruling that suspending licenses without ascertaining the debtor's ability to pay is likely a violation of due process.

Michigan's traffic tickets can certainly hit drivers hard in the wallet. The state's traffic fines, which begin at $150, can be accompanied by up to $100 in discretionary court costs, plus a mandatory "justice system assessment" of $40 per infraction. If unpaid within 56 days, they increase by 20 percent. Failure to pay these costs is also a misdemeanor, carrying an additional fine of up to $100. After six weeks, the secretary of state automatically suspends the debtor's driver's license until the debts are paid in full, plus an additional "reinstatement fee" of $45.

If you're caught driving on a suspended license, the costs go up further. "Driving While License Suspended" is a misdemeanor carrying a $500 fine; the reinstatement fee increases to $125, and you also face a new penalty, called a "driver responsibility fee," of either $250, $500, or $750.

Last year the civil rights group Equal Justice Under Law challenged that system in court. Suing on behalf of Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, two women whose licenses were suspended due to court debt, the organization's attorneys argued that the license suspension scheme infringes on a number of constitutionally protected rights, including fundamental fairness and freedom of travel. Judge Linda Parker found most of these arguments unlikely to prevail on the merits, but she held that suspending licenses without holding an "ability-to-pay hearing" (as a number of other states routinely do) probably violates drivers' rights.

The state then asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to indefinitely stay Parker's order. In its response, the appeals court acknowledged that "the injunction is broad in scope and provides very little direction as to what specific actions should be taken." But it added that the government is unlikely to prevail on the merits, and it has stayed the order for only 30 days—long enough for Parker to give Michigan more specific instructions on how to comply with her injunction.

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  1. Whomever said that driver’s licenses would be used by government for a bunch of things unrelated to driving was proven correct.

    1. I just started 7 weeks ago and I’ve gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000…this is the best decision I made in a long time! “Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home.
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      1. But did the state suspend your driver’s license?

    2. Child support failure to pay and then the state suspending licenses was another example.

    3. … aren’t traffic tickets kind of expressly related to driving, though?

  2. Isn’t the very requirement of a driver’s license racist and regressive?

    1. Only if you require people to have it or another state issued ID in order to vote.

  3. “If unpaid within 56 days, they increase by 20 percent. Failure to pay these costs is also a misdemeanor, carrying an additional fine of up to $100.”

    And to think that some people think payday lenders, pawn shops, and the like gouge their customers, and want the state to do something about it.

    1. And to think that some people think payday lenders, pawn shops, and the like gouge their customers

      It’s different when the State does it, because something something social contract, mumble mumble greater good…

  4. The added court costs can be insane. My nice but dopey neighbor had his second DUI, one that was above .15, so he got two counts guilty with two $375 fines totaling $750.

    But they added a metric buttload of fees and court costs worth $1,500. So his fees were twice the fine. $2,250 total for a DUI. Which he’s paying back at $50 a month because he’s a dope without a regular job.

    1. Um, that’s all pretty cheap for a DUI, much less a second one. That’s all less than I paid for mine in 1992.

      1. What state do you live in? We’re PA, and I thought that was pretty crazy. I didn’t mention that he also got house arrest and volunteered for rehab to cut that down by 30 days.

  5. I mean, witty alt text > literal alt text, but I guess it will have to do, Intern.

    1. He’s already outperforming Christian.

  6. This judge is treating this vital safety mechanism as though it was simply a moneymaking scheme.

  7. constitutionally protected rights, including fundamental fairness

    Haha, that was a good one.

  8. THIS intern has alt-text!

    What happened?

  9. Does this apply to all drivers, or just the ones who pay nothing? A lot of these shitty systems seem to both exacerbate, and are exacerbated by, people who don’t bother paying or working out any kind of arrangement.

    A traffic violation can run $290 when all is said and done. That’s messed up. If you don’t pay in 56 days, it’s another $72.50 + a $100 FYTW fee. It would be really advisable for someone faced with a $290 assessment to work out a payment arrangement of some kind to avoid another $172.50 fine/assessment.

    It’s also a bad idea to drive on a suspended license as you may get hit with between $875 and $1375 in fees.

    All in all, it’s a good idea to address any tickets in a timely and responsible manner.

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