Appeals court: Michigan license suspension law doesn't discriminate against poor

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan law mandating driver's license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines does not unconstitutionally discriminate against poor residents who cannot afford to pay them, a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled Wednesday.

The 2-1 decision reversed a suspended order by Detroit U.S. District Judge Linda Parker, an appointee of President Barack Obama. Parker ruled in 2017 that the state was likely violating the due process rights of poor people unable to afford fines by suspending their license without a public hearing on their ability to pay.

But Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder, in a majority opinion joined by Judge Amul Thapar, noted that Michigan’s statutory scheme for license suspensions does not make any reference to the “indigency status” of drivers.

So enforcement of the law “does not run afoul to the 14th Amendment” right to equal protection under the law, she wrote.

“If Plaintiffs’ indigency is not relevant to the state’s underlying decision to suspend their licenses, then giving them a hearing — or any other procedural opportunity — where they can raise their indigency would be pointless.”

The case was filed on behalf of two Michigan women, including Adrian Fowler, who in 2012 was unable to renew her license in Michigan because of court debts associated with unpaid traffic tickets in Georgia, where she previously lived.

Fowler claimed she was working 20 hours a week at $8.90 per hour and told a Ferndale court she could not afford to pay her nearly $600 in debts. Without access to reliable transportation, she said she was unable to find well-paying work because of her suspended license.

Plaintiff attorneys argued the state policy is “irrational” because suspending the license of poor people makes it harder for them to obtain a job and less likely to pay their debt.

“Perhaps plaintiffs are right that the policy is unwise, even counter productive,” but the Michigan law is constitutional, wrote Batchelder, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.

But “Michigan’s choice to wield the cudgel of driver’s-license suspension for nonpayment of court debt dramatically heightens the incentive to pay,” she said. “Such a policy is rationally related to ‘the government’s interest in prompt assessment and collection of civil penalties.’"

U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alice Batchelder

Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald, the lone member of the appeals court panel appointed by a Democratic president, disagreed with her colleagues and said their decision “erodes essential promises.” She closed her 30-page dissent with an exclamation mark to reinforce her objections.

The state should give driver’s more options and opportunity to avoid license suspension if they are unable to pay traffic fines and fees, she said.

“Michigan’s license-suspension scheme imposes a harsher sanction on indigent drivers than their non-indigent peers,” wrote Donald, an Obama appointee. “Given the great degree of deprivation at stake, Michigan’s failure to inquire into a driver’s ability to pay and afford alternatives violates due process and equal protection.”

The appeals court had suspended Parker’s ruling pending the outcome of the 2017 appeal filed on behalf of Republican then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. Former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office argued an injunction initially issued by Parker was “a deep unwarranted intrusion into Michigan’s sovereignty and its traditional police powers.” 

All proceedings in the case, with the exception of Wednesday's ruling, took place before current Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took office in January, said spokesman Shawn Starkey. 

"With the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sending the case back to U.S. District Court, we will work with the state Attorney General’s office on next steps," he said.

Attorney John Philo of the Sugar Law Center said the plaintiffs are disappointed in the appeals court ruling. 

"The decision fails to recognize the devastating consequences and spiraling cycle of poverty that is caused in low-income households when driver’s licenses are automatically suspended regardless of one’s ability to pay excessive fines and fees," he said in an email.

Michigan law directs the Secretary of State’s office to immediately and automatically suspend the driver’s license of a motorist who fails to comply with a court judgement within a certain time frame.

Residents typically have at least 28 days to respond to a traffic citation, notice to appear or court judgement, including fines, costs, fees and assessments. If they do not do so, the court sends out a written notice to their last known address and gives them 14 additional days to comply.

The Michigan Legislature and former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018 approved a new law to forgive so-called “driver responsibility fees” that the state had imposed on motorists for certain offenses in addition to traditional traffic fines.

The state also temporarily waived a $125 reinstatement fees for more motorists who had lost their licenses because of outstanding driver responsibility debts, but that window closed at the end of 2018.

Philo said his team is proud the license suspension case "resulted in the repeal of Michigan’s unfair drivers responsibility fee statute" and said they will "continue to fight for the rights of the working poor to live with dignity and without discriminatory state-created penalties tied to their economic status.”