Panel Rules Indigent Drivers Can’t Fight Suspensions

CINCINNATI (CN) – Michigan’s practice of suspending the licenses of indigent drivers who don’t pay fines and court costs does not violate their right to due process, a divided Sixth Circuit panel ruled Wednesday.

The majority overturned a district court ruling that granted an injunction and found that a class of low-income drivers with suspended licenses was likely to succeed on the merits of their claims.

The appeal was argued last October and stems from a federal class action filed by Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, each of whom had their Michigan driver’s licenses suspended following their failure to pay fines for traffic citations.

The pair claimed their 14th Amendment due process rights were violated when they were denied the opportunity to have hearings on their ability to pay, and U.S. District Judge Linda Parker granted their motion for a preliminary injunction in April 2018.

Wednesday’s ruling, however, lifted that injunction, and found that Michigan law does not create a specific property interest for indigent individuals “in maintaining their driver’s licenses when state law requires they be suspended due to unpaid court debt.”

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder, a George H.W. Bush appointee, wrote the majority opinion, and said “neither the district court nor plaintiffs identify any legal authority showing that Michigan law directs anyone to consider a license holder’s indigency as part of the process of suspending his driver’s license for failure to pay court debt.”

“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,” she continued.

Constitutional claims aside, Batchelder said the state’s “choice to wield the cudgel of driver’s-license suspension for nonpayment of court debt dramatically heightens the incentive to pay,” and, therefore, serves a legitimate government purpose.

“That this policy,” she wrote, “may in many cases make that – now more highly incentivized – payment harder to accomplish does not show that the law lacks a rational basis.”

Batchelder was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, a Donald Trump appointee.

U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, appointed by Barack Obama, wrote a dissenting opinion and argued the majority erred when it ignored “age-old Supreme Court precedent that squarely recognizes a protected property interest in the continued possession of a driver’s license.”

Donald said Michigan provided the indigent drivers with insufficient notice before it suspended their licenses, and lamented the lack of procedures available for an individual to prove his or her indigency.

“The risk of erroneous deprivation of the driver’s license of a person who is truly unable to pay is far too great unless there are added procedures,” she wrote. “The question of whether one is indigent would involve a fact-intensive inquiry that might require a driver to testify regarding their financial status and provide documentation. This is a small price to pay to avoid financial ruination of an indigent individual or family.”

Donald also took issue with the majority’s assessment of the rational basis for Michigan’s license suspension scheme.

“It is difficult to rationalize…how suspending the driver’s license of a person who is truly unable to pay makes it any more likely that Michigan will recover the costs it seeks to collect,” the dissenting opinion states.

“Surely, suspending the driver’s license of ‘someone who through no fault of his own is unable to [pay]’ will not ‘make [payment] suddenly forthcoming,’” the judge added, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling in Bearden v. Georgia.

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