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State settles driver responsibility fee lawsuit, offers alternative payment

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — State leaders have agreed to a settlement with individuals who argued Michigan’s law requiring driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines discriminated against poor residents.

The state agreed to make certain revisions to Michigan’s citations and court forms offering alternative to payment.

Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Feb. 21 in Lansing.

The agreement comes roughly six months after the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law was constitutional because it did not make any reference to the “indigency status” of drivers.

“While it was clear the state would likely prevail, this onerous policy clearly penalized low-income drivers, putting them in a no-win situation by severely limiting their mobility and access to employment,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a Friday statement. “It is time to re-evaluate laws that effectively criminalize being poor.”

The case was filed in 2017 by two Michigan women who ran afoul of the law. One of the women, Adrian Fowler, was unable to renew her license in Michigan in 2012 because of court debts associated with unpaid traffic tickets in Georgia, where she previously lived.

Fowler told a Ferndale court that she could not afford to pay her nearly $600 in debts because, without reliable transportation, she was unable to find a well-paying job.

Fowler’s attorney argued the state policy was “irrational” because poor people with a suspended license are less likely to be able to maintain a job and pay back those fees.

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 judgment within a certain time frame.

Michigan leaders have agreed to offer an alternative payment for individuals who can't afford to pay traffic fines. Failure to pay previously triggered driver’s license suspensions, prompting complaints of discrimination against poor residents.

The change agreed to in the settlement would require the state to add a line to six types of citations of forms, informing residents: “If you are not able to pay any fine or costs due to financial hardship, contact the court immediately to request a payment alternative.”

The changes required the approval of the attorney general, secretary of state, state court administrator and the director of the Michigan State Police, all of whom expressed support in the Friday statement.

“I am proud that we are working to stop penalizing poverty,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said. “There is a disconnect of logic in this law, and all Michiganders benefit when we make the justice system more fair.”

Chief Justice Bridge McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, both members of the state’s Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, noted that driver’s license suspensions are a leading factor in Michigan’s “sky high” incarceration rates and were a key consideration in the task force’s work.

“This action is an important step toward reducing how many people come into contact with the system,” Gilchrist said. “It moves us closer to ensuring our policies treat people across the state fairly despite their socio-economic status.”

In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature approved a new law that would forgive the so-called driver responsibility fees.

The state also opened a window, which closed at the end of 2018, that temporarily waived a $125 reinstatement fee for drivers who had lost their licenses due to driver responsibility debts.