FLINT, Mich. (CN) – Michigan’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees is unconstitutional and traps low-income residents into a cycle of poverty, citizens claim in a class action.
According to the complaint filed Thursday in Flint federal court, the state has collected over $40 million in “driver responsibility” fees in the last three years and has suspended over 100,000 licenses since 2010, in a practice the lawsuit calls an “unconstitutional wealth-based suspension scheme.”
Michigan law requires that its state department suspend the licenses of residents who have unpaid court fees.
This practice unduly harms residents who simply cannot pay their court costs, as being unable to drive hampers their ability to earn a living and thus pay their fees, the lawsuit says.
“Without driver’s licenses, people already facing the harsh realities of owing court debt while living in poverty face additional hurdles of being unable to drive to and from work, get their children to daycare, keep medical appointments, and care for their family members,” the complaint states.
The class-action lawsuit lists Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson as the lone defendant, and seeks to have the license suspending practice deemed unconditional.
One of the named plaintiffs, 31-year-old Adrian Fowler, owes $2,121 to courts in Ferndale, Eastpointe and Oak Park.
Fowler says her license was suspended in 2012 for unpaid Georgia traffic tickets that she had been unable to pay prior to moving to Michigan.
The next year, Fowler was cited for driving on a suspended license after being pulled over by an officer while she was trying to rush her young daughter to the hospital during inclement weather, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit claims that the officer was sympathetic to Fowler’s plight and let her continue to the hospital despite her suspended license, but not before writing a $600 ticket.
“When Ms. Fowler went to the Ferndale courthouse to tell them that she would not be able to pay the $600, she was told that if she did not return in three weeks with the full amount, a warrant would be issued for her arrest,” the complaint states.
The other named plaintiff, 25-year-old Kitia Harris, says she was charged with a $150 traffic ticket that she can’t afford to pay on her disability income.
After she did not pay the fee, Harris’ license was suspended and she now owes the courts a total of $276, according to the complaint.
Fowler and Harris seek to represent a class of Michigan residents whose driver’s licenses are suspended, or will be suspended, based solely on their inability to pay court debts.
They are represented by Phil Telfeyan and other attorneys with Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, D.C., and by John Philo with Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice in Detroit.
While not commenting directly on the pending litigation, Michigan Secretary of State spokesperson Fred Woodhams told Courthouse News that “the department does suspend a person’s driver’s license as required by state law after a court notifies it that a traffic ticket was not paid. Traffic tickets are paid to the local court district.”
Michigan is not the only state facing such a challenge.
In Virginia, a similar lawsuit was filed last summer by the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center, and also claimed that drivers were unfairly losing their licenses due to unpaid court courts.
The United States Department of Justice weighed in on the Virginia lawsuit in November, siding with the affected drivers.
“Suspending the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay fines or fees without inquiring into whether that failure to pay was willful or instead the result of an inability to pay may result in penalizing indigent individuals solely because of their poverty, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the DOJ wrote in a statement of interest in the case.
However, despite the vote of confidence from the federal government, the Virginia case is mired in court proceedings after U.S. District Judge Norman Moon dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction in March. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, the plaintiffs appealed Moon’s dismissal in April.