Thousands take advantage of ticket amnesty program

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

More than a thousand people lined up this week to take advantage of a late Christmas gift from Detroit’s 36th District Court: a chance at amnesty.

The court for the first time hosted a two-day “Holiday Sales Event,” a program that offered violators an opportunity to have late and warrant fees waived on outstanding balances owed on traffic tickets.

The program kicked off at 9 a.m. Monday and by the close of business the court had served 1,077 people and collected $103,000, officials say. By the end of the event at 2 p.m. Tuesday, anyone standing in line was offered a “rain check” that will allow them to return within 30 days to get the discount.

“Several thousand people turned out to take advantage of this one-time opportunity to restore their driving privileges and save hundreds of dollars on each ticket,” Chief Judge Nancy M. Blount said in a statement released late Tuesday. “They recognized that the new year is a time for new beginnings and wanted to start the year off with a clean slate. Anyone who was in line will still get that opportunity and we hope they take advantage of it.”

A final tally of customers served and dollars collected is expected when the court reopens after the new year. The total amount of outstanding fees owed to the court was not immediately available.

Derrick Agee, 50, was among those waiting at the courthouse Tuesday hoping to take advantage of the one-time offer. The lines stretched for blocks, with people bundled up against the cold wind.

Agee, a construction worker, should have been at work on Tuesday, but said it was worth the wait for the court program, a first step in getting back his driver’s license.

Agee said he takes a risk every time he gets behind the wheel, “creeping the back streets” and hoping he doesn’t get pulled over, but he wants to be able to drive legally going into the new year.

“I gotta get to work,” Agee said. “I gotta feed my family.”

Normal court operations are on break until Monday.

The amnesty applied to late fees and warrant fees. Violators still had to pay the cost of the initial ticket.

Overdue traffic tickets cost Melvin Percy, 28, dearly.

“I can’t drive (legally),” Percy said.

For the last six months, he’s had to hail Uber and catch rides everywhere he goes. It has gotten costly. Percy estimated that it costs him $400 a month to get around his own city.

While thankful for the chance to clear the old debt, Percy said it came at a cost of its own.

“If I wasn’t here, I’d be at work — making money instead of spending it,” Percy said.

Welton McInnis, 42, came out to resolve “some old traffic warrants, from years ago” Tuesday morning.

“I ain’t really been having the money to pay the tickets,” McInnis said. “I wanted to get down here as soon as possible to get my record clean.”

He can’t drive legally right now, so he takes the bus. Its limitations, and the fact he can’t drive, make getting around so difficult he can’t find steady work. The wait was long, and the day was cold, but “it was worth it” to have that debt off his record, he said.

Antonio Dorsette’s entire future is in front of him. Once he’s able to get his driver’s license, he can start work toward getting a commercial license.

“Not having a license holds me up from a lot of things — jobs, other opportunities,” Dorsette, 28, said. “I’m OSHA 10 certified and I can’t even get out of town to get to work because my license is (messed) up.”

Some court patrons offered suggestions on how the amnesty program could be more user-friendly.

Dorsette’s friend Montez Gibson, 35, suggested that the amnesty event be held at neighboring Ford Field, which is designed specifically to accommodate long lines.

Gibson also thought that Porta Potties would have been a nice touch. He was also one of several line-waiters who thought the amnesty should have lasted longer than two days.

“I’ve been in line for three hours,” Gibson said. “I can’t even use the bathroom. They knew what the turnout was gonna be.”