Study: 100K Mich. drivers lose licenses for unpaid fees

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

A report issued Tuesday by the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center finds Michigan is one of five states that require judges to seize people’s licenses if they fail to pay court fees after a trial or hearing — even if they can’t pay and their case didn’t involve a traffic violation.

Michigan has currently suspended the licenses of more than 100,000 drivers for an indefinite time, leading civil rights organizations to challenge the practice as too harsh. Five federal class-action suits seeking to halt the suspensions are pending, including one in U.S. District Court in Flint.

“These are citizens who have served their jail time, probation, or other punishment, and should be able to rejoin society,” said the nonprofit justice center in a news release accompanying the 20-page report.

“But without a driver’s license, many can’t keep a job or care for their families. Without jobs, they can’t pay off the fees to get their license restored. Some desperately resort to driving without a license — putting them at risk of further legal trouble. It’s a cycle of poverty and jail that does nothing for public safety.”

The report said Michigan and four other states account for more than 4.2 million license suspensions or revocations for failure to pay court debts totaling in the millions of dollars. Michigan, with 100,000 suspensions, trails Tennessee with 146,000; Virginia, 977,000; North Carolina, nearly 1.2 million; and Texas, 1.8 million.

Michigan also boasts the highest reinstatement fees nationally for driver’s licenses, according to the report: $125 plus the $500 driver responsibility fee if convicted of driving with a suspended license.

The report, the first known 50-state analysis of driver’s license suspension laws for failure to pay court debts, is supported by other organizations and persons that support civil rights causes, including John Philo, a Detroit attorney who has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Detroiters Adrian Fowler, 31, and Kitia Harris, 25.

Neither Fowler nor Harris could be reached for comment Monday.

According to their lawsuit, Fowler’s license was suspended for owing at least $2,121 in unpaid traffic tickets and fines, including a speeding ticket she received in Ferndale in 2013 when rushing her then-infant daughter to a hospital because of a 103-degree fever. Harris’ license was suspended for $276 in unpaid traffic tickets and being unable to pay her court debt.

“Driver license suspensions for nonpayment of court fees equals job loss and a cycle of problems for persons without options,” Philo said. The lawsuit, which has been assigned to federal Judge Linda Parker, has no hearing date set, he said.

“A person needs to drive to make their rent and clothe and feed their families so they take a chance and drive without a license, get stopped and ticketed again,” he said. “Our office has been flooded with calls from people caught in the ticket cycle who want to pay back their tickets but are unable to do so.

“They need to stay employed but are often faced with losing their job or unable to seek other employment. There has got to be a better way.”

A person with a bad driving record may deserve such penalties but if they have money, they often can buy their way out of it and get back to driving again, Philo said. Not so for the poor.

“It only hurts the person who can’t pay their fines, they just get more,” he said, saying the use of license suspensions could be likened to a “debtor’s prison” where offenders, often poor, were kept until they paid off their debt.

Shane Moon, a 29-year-old Lapeer-area construction worker, said he has been caught in the “ticket cycle” for four long years — and with no end in sight.

“I actually have a pretty good driving record,” he said. “OK, I was ticketed once for having an open container (of alcohol) in the car when I was 21 and in the past eight years have had a speeding ticket — both stupid moves, but that’s it.”

In the past four years Moon, who claims he needs to drive illegally to earn money to support his 4-year-old son and girlfriend, has been ticketed numerous times for having no registration, no insurance and no license.

His car has been impounded more than once. He was once permitted to perform 40 hours of community service — after laboring 14-16 hour workdays pouring concrete or working with asphalt.

“I’m not a reckless or bad driver and don’t drive drunk,” he insists. “But there have been times I have been given two or three tickets — totaling over $300 — and 14 days to pay it,” he said. “I don’t make that much money.

“I know it must sound irresponsible but I couldn’t keep up with the tickets,” which, he said, totaled more than $1,000 a year in non-payment fines in Oakland and Genesee county courts. “When I finally got a job that paid well but demanded I be there on time every day, I didn’t have a choice. Then I would get other tickets. Finally, I threw them away. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pay them.

“I worry every time I drive to or from work that I’m going to get stopped,” he said. “I feel like I have a hand on my head, holding me down.”

Michigan requires an offending motorist caught driving without a license to pay the $500 driver responsibility fee. According to the report, since 2013 Michigan has assessed offenders more than $165.2 million in such fees and collected $99.3 million.

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit that contributed to the report, said nonpayment is a national issue. “There are 39 states which allow (suspensions),” Telfeyan said. “It’s huge.

“Making matters worse is when it hits a person on a fixed income that cannot handle the expense while trying to meet basic necessities,” Telfeyan said. “For some who are unable to pay, there is no incentive to pay.”

Telfeyan said it boils down to whether “the penalty fits the offense.”

“If you are doing this as a matter of safety, such as persons with DUI, you can make the argument,” he said. “But if a relatively safe driver is unable to pay a fine, shouldn’t they be provided some form of a payment plan so they can keep driving, keep working and keep their jobs?”