Mich. drivers owing responsibility fees catch a break

Phil Berg

Some Michigan drivers who owe driver-responsibilty fees are catching a break. Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law last week that forgives those fees. And in localities where automated ticketing is used, the courts are starting to push back on machines that automatically issue speeding tickets and red-light fines.

The state responsibility fee has been a 2-year assessment starting when a driver accumulates seven points, Berg writes.

Michigan’s responsibility fees were enacted in 2003 to create funds that went for state infrastructure and fire fighting. The program mandated those fees for certain offenses on top of traditional traffic fines, and were promoted as a way to improve traffic safety and save lives. The most common violations, however, turned out to be driving without insurance and driving with a suspended license, according to the state.

A state Senate evaluation of the program found the fees “are a tax upon a fine and amount to double punishment.” Annual fees sometimes in the thousands of dollars were partially reduced in 2011, and officially end Oct. 1. Only New Jersey, New York and Texas continue similar fee programs.

The Michigan driver responsibility fee has been a two-year assessment starting when a driver accumulates seven points on his or her license, in two categories of severity.

However, points received for violations out-of-state are also added to a Michigan driver’s record, and contribute to increasing the point total to require the extra responsibility fees. Some violations in other states that can add points to a Michigan driver’s license include speeding and red light tickets from automated machines, which Michigan doesn’t allow.

Automated ticketing machines emerged as a controversial thorn for motorists in the mid-2000s. The machines continue to raise the ire of courts.

Most notable is a procedural ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court in February labeling the city of Minneapolis’ automated ticket camera ordinance invalid. There are 23 states outside of Michigan where municipalities are allowed to use photo-ticket machines to automatically issue speed and red light fines to vehicle owners, even though the owners may not happen to be the violating drivers.

The Minnesota court found that because of a state requirement that only a driver can be liable for a moving violation, that municipalities cannot hold vehicle owners liable. In addition, the court stated: “The problem with the presumption that the owner was the driver is that it eliminates the presumption of innocence and shifts the burden of proof from that required by the rules of criminal procedure.”

Other actions against automated ticketing happening around the country in the first two months of 2018 include a massive class-action lawsuit in New York City to refund millions of dollars in fines collected from automated speeding tickets, based on a technicality that the notices of violations were not legally binding court documents.

In Chicago, an appellate court last week ruled that yellow light times that varied between 2.9 and 3.1 seconds were sufficiently long enough that it didn’t require the city to refund tickets worth over $7 million to 77,000 motorists who were fined for being in intersections with photo ticketing machines when the light turned red too quickly. The national requirement for the shortest safe yellow light duration is three seconds, although some states have even longer yellow time requirements.

The upside for drivers is that suburbs that have begun copying the lucrative Chicago city system are drawing much criticism from locals.