State seeks freeze on driver’s license injunction

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office is asking a federal appeals court for an emergency stay on a court order that temporarily bars the state from suspending motorists’ driver’s licenses for failing to pay traffic debt.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office has appealed the court injunction and asked the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to block Detroit Federal Judge Linda Parker’s preliminary injunction on the state’s ability to suspend driver’s licenses.

“This lawsuit is about the ability of Michigan trial courts to enforce judgments against drivers for traffic violation,” said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Johnson’s office. “When a driver does not show up in court or does not pay their traffic fines, the court can request that their license be suspended.”

The injunction interferes with “the regulation of Michigan’s driver’s licenses and roadways, as well as administration of its trial courts,” according to the emergency motion from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, calling it “a deep unwarranted intrusion into Michigan’s sovereignty and its traditional police powers,”

Schuette’s legal team is arguing on behalf of Johnson’s office.

Parker turned aside the state’s arguments last week when the state argued that the injunction is a “monkey wrench thrown into an enormous machine running at full speed.”

Parker wrote last Thursday that 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 that she’s not ordering the state to restore anyone’s license at this point.

The state’s emergency motion argued that stopping the state from suspending driver’s licenses will also hurt courts, local government and the state because of lost revenue.

“The intrusion will be costly,” the motion said.

The Cincinnati-based appeals court will decide Thursday whether to grant the emergency stay. The 6th Circuit oversees federal appeals cases in Michigan as well as Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee

“The department is confident that once the judicial process is completed, Michigan’s well-established traffic-enforcement system will be upheld,” Woodhams said.

Schuette argued that more than one million records for people who haven’t paid traffic debt “could now potentially argue they can avoid” paying it.

Parker 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,” the federal judge wrote.

Critics have argued the state’s 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.

It is a separate issue from “driver responsibility fees,” which are additional fees for some traffic violations that can be incurred on top of the original traffic fee itself.

The Michigan House voted in November to erase any debt belonging to people who haven’t been able to pay such fees in 11 months. The Senate passed a more modest plan, but both chambers have not approved identical legislation, and it could prove difficult for GOP leaders to get Gov. Rick Snyder to support such an effort.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, has vowed to make the debt-erasing plan one of his highest priorities in 2018.