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Michigan’s License Suspension Scheme Traps the Poor

by David Reutter

The Michigan Department of State runs a “wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty,” a class action lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a national civil rights organization. The scheme results in the automatic and indefinite suspension of “driver’s licenses of people who owe court-ordered fines, costs, fees, and assessments, even if they simply cannot afford to pay.”

The complaint alleges that the scheme violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. It seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against Ruth Jackson in her capacity as the Secretary of State.

In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt and failure to appear. The suspension of licenses for the inability to pay traps people "in an inescapable cycle of poverty" and results in "narrowing or eliminating their job opportunities and impeding their ability to take care of their children and obtain necessary medical treatment."

Plaintiff Adrian Fowler, 31, is caught in such a cycle. She has outstanding traffic tickets and fines from Georgia and is unable to renew her Michigan license as a result. She currently works for a security firm at Michigan's hourly minimum wage, which is $8.90. She was forced to turn down a job offer with another security firm that offered $12.50 per hour "because the position would have required her to travel throughout the metropolitan area, something she cannot do without a valid license."

Fowler owes at least $2,121 due to fees from tickets in Michigan jurisdictions. She earns only about $712 monthly at her part-time job, which does not even cover her rent. Even if she paid her outstanding fines and fees, she would face fees for reinstatement from the Secretary of State.

There is a $45 reinstatement fee, which is split three ways under state law. The Secretary of State, the county, district, or city, and the juror compensation reimbursement fund all get a third of that fee. Then, there is a Driver's Responsibility Fee for license suspensions due to violation of probation while one's license is suspended. That requires a $125 reinstatement fee and $500 per year for two years; the latter fee will end on October 1, 2019.

The complaint cites studies that show 42% of drivers whose licenses were suspended lost their jobs, 45% were unable to find new employment, and 88% suffered a decrease in income. With driving while license suspended being a criminal offense that can result in a year in jail and a %1,000 fine. "Michigan's wealth based scheme creates a downward spiral from poverty to criminal culpability."

"The high cost losing a driver's license results in an impossible choice: drive – and risk being charged with driving while license suspended, which itself can lead to additional cost, fines, and periods of incarceration – or refrain from driving and lose access to gainful employment and medical case," the complaint states.

The suit aims to even the play of field and change that Hobson's choice.

See: Fowler v. Johnson, USDC, E.D. Michigan, Case No: 2:17-cv-11441

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Related legal case

Fowler v. Johnson



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