Judge bucks state on halting driver’s licenses over unpaid fines

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A federal judge won’t freeze an order halting Michigan officials from suspending the driver’s licenses of people unable to afford traffic fines.

U.S. District Judge Linda Parker turned aside aggressive arguments by the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, which describes an injunction by her from last week as a “monkey wrench thrown into an enormous machine running at full speed.”

Parker wrote there’s a strong likelihood that the due process rights of poor people are being violated when their licenses are suspended for failure to pay traffic fines. But the judge also emphasized Thursday that she’s not ordering the state to restore anyone’s license at this point.

She said the secretary of state must guarantee that people have notice of an ability-to-pay hearing before a suspension.

“The interests at stake are substantial because the loss of a driver’s license, particularly in a state like Michigan lacking an efficient and extensive public transportation system, hinders a person’s ability to travel and earn a living,” Parker wrote.

Officials have argued the practices penalize some drivers and can lead to a cycle of more court fees and fines that stop many Michigan drivers from getting back on the road.

Allowing Parker’s order to stand is “very significant,” said John Philo, a Detroit attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of two area drivers. “The judge has looked very closely at the facts and the issues and rendered a decision finding that ability to pay should be taken into consideration.”

The state had requested Parker stay enforcement of the decision pending the outcome of its appeal to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams on Thursday told The Detroit News: “We received the decision after close of business today, and are reviewing it and what our next steps are.”

The judge’s decision is another step in addressing “driver responsibility fees,” which Michigan imposes on drivers who commit multiple infractions beyond their underlying traffic ticket.

The Michigan Legislature approved the fees about 15 years ago, saying the penalties could help discourage careless driving. Critics claim they were used to plug holes in the state budget.

Michigan collected $69.2 million in driver responsibility fees in fiscal year 2017 and was expected to collect $52 million in the current fiscal year, the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency has reported.

As of August, 348,440 drivers owed the state $637 million in driver responsibility fees, the Michigan Treasury found.

A recent report issued by the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center found Michigan is among five states requiring judges to seize licenses of residents who fail to pay court fees after a trial or hearing — even if they cannot do so and their case did not involve a traffic violation. The group said the penalties could lead to “a cycle of poverty and jail that does nothing for public safety.”

Michigan has suspended the licenses of more than 100,000 drivers and boasts the highest reinstatement fees nationally, according to the analysis.

Several federal class-action suits have sought to halt the suspensions, including Philo’s.

The two southeast Michigan residents he represented both faced struggles in recent years. According to their lawsuit, Adrian Fowler’s license was suspended for owing at least $2,121 in unpaid traffic tickets as well as fines, including a speeding ticket she received in Ferndale in 2013 when rushing her infant daughter to a hospital because of a 103-degree fever.

Kitia Harris’ license was suspended for $276 in unpaid traffic tickets.

“There’s no shortage of people in this situation,” Philo said Thursday. “We hope the state would recognize that you can’t get people to pay by hamstringing them in their ability to keep working by suspending their license.”

The fees, which Secretary of State Ruth Johnson once testified “hurt families and have a far-reaching, domino effect,” has prompted officials to seek action.

Under a 2014 law that Gov. Rick Snyder signed, the state has started phasing out the fees, which had been scheduled to end in late 2019.

In October, the Michigan Senate scaled back a bipartisan plan to forgive hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid driver responsibility fees, unanimously approving legislation limited to debts six years or older. The legislation would end the fee program in October 2018, speeding up the planned phase-out.

The House has also considered its own driver responsibility fee elimination plan.

Meanwhile, Snyder on Thursday signed legislation keeping intact a law that puts people’s driver’s license at risk if they have three unpaid parking tickets. Michigan in 2012 enacted a law dropping the threshold from six unpaid tickets to three. The limit was due to rise to six again on Jan. 1.

The law lets courts notify people who fail to answer three parking violation notices that if they do not appear within 10 days, the Secretary of State’s Office will be informed. The secretary of state then cannot issue or renew their driver’s license until the citations have been resolved.

Associated Press contributed.