Michigan is especially tough when it comes to suspending the driver's licenses of residents unable to pay off court fees and fines, according to a report released this week. \
The Legal Aid Justice Center analyzed the driver's license suspension polices of 50 states. Michigan's were among the five harshest.
The report, "Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt," comes a few months after a lawsuit was filed by a separate group against the state, alleging its suspension policies are hurting poor people.
The report looked at various ways that states suspend driver's licenses and found that Michigan had restrictions on multiple levels:
- In Michigan, suspending driver's licenses of those who owe courts is mandatory instead of discretionary, as in some other states.
- Suspensions are indefinite instead of time-limited.
- The state doesn't take into consideration financial ability to pay the debt in suspending licenses.
- Suspensions apply to traffic infractions and to criminal cases that have nothing to do with driving.
Only four other states have those restrictions: Delaware, Virginia, Maine and Florida, said the report's co-author.
Michigan "has one of the harshest systems," said Angela Ciolfi, director of litigation and advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia. "Driver’s license suspension sets up a vicious cycle. ... Those who can’t pay, lose their licenses and consequently suffer a neverending cycle of debt and incarceration."
She said "the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families."
In addition to regular fees and fines from courts, Michigan has Driver Responsibility Fees that have brought criticism. On Thursday, state legislators announced a package of bills to discontinue those fees earlier than previously planned.
“As a (former) prosecutor in Genesee County, I saw every day the awful impact these unfair fees had on Michigan families,” Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said in a statement. "Far too many working people who received a ticket and paid their fine were hit with new, impossible surcharges, often costing them their licenses, and then their jobs, and then their ability to ever pay off the mountain of debt.
"These are good people who just want to get to work and drive to school to pick up their children. They want to do the right thing, but the government has them trapped in a cycle of failure from which they can never escape. That is not right, and it is well past time we repealed this unjust mistake."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder told the Free Press: "The Governor signed legislation in June 2014 to lessen and phase out driver responsibility fees by Oct. 2019 and is open to discussing options to address fines and outstanding fees."
The new proposed legislation would phase out the driver responsibility fees sooner than 2019. But the legislation does not apply to regular fees and other fines residents face, which the new report released this week addresses.
Given that metro Detroit has the largest job sprawl among big metro areas, according to a Brookings Institution report, and limited public transportation, an inability to drive with a valid license can hurt employment prospects.
Adrian Fowler, 31, of Detroit, who had her license suspended after she was unable to pay her court debt, told the Free Press in May that she can't commute for a better-paying job in the suburbs to help pay her debts. Fowler is part of the lawsuit that Equal Justice Under Law filed in May against Michigan.
The report released this week said that 43 states suspend driver's licenses because of unpaid court debt. Only four require first making an ability-to-pay determination first.
And 14 states, like Michigan, suspend licenses not only for court debt on traffic cases, but for criminal cases. The report found that in just five states, including Michigan, there were 4.2 million people who have their licenses suspended. Texas had the most, with 1.8 million, followed by 1.2 million in North Carolina, 977,000 in Virginia, 146,000 in Tennessee, and 100,000 in Michigan.
A spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Fred Woodhams, told the Free Press on Thursday that "motorists in Michigan who have been ticketed receive multiple notices and opportunities to work with the court to resolve the ticket and any fines prior to license suspension. Courts have wide discretion to work with a ticketed motorist to resolve fines or set up payment plans."
Woodhams added: "Only after a person fails to appear in court or fails to pay a court judgment after repeated notices is the Secretary of State’s Office notified and then required by law to suspend a driver’s license. According to the study, 43 states and the District of Columbia suspend a license due to unpaid court debt so Michigan is hardly off by itself."
Also, "Secretary Johnson has consistently pushed the Legislature to address the issue of Driver Responsibility Fees (DRF) and long-term DRF debt owed by Michigan motorists."
In a statement Thursday on Driver Responsibility Fees, Johnson said: “I look forward to working with lawmakers to close this painful chapter from Michigan’s lost decade. Driver Responsibility Fees are over and above traffic tickets and fines imposed by a court.
"The fees are a costly, double penalty on working families added automatically, without the opportunity for a court to review the circumstances as with normal tickets. Too many Michigan residents now can’t drive because of these automatic fees, limiting their ability to find work, and it’s starting to hurt local businesses who can’t find enough qualified employees."
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