Panel Weighs License Suspensions Tied to Court Fees

CINCINNATI (CN) – An attorney for Michigan argued on Wednesday before a Sixth Circuit panel to overturn an injunction that prevents the state from suspending the licenses of drivers who don’t pay traffic fines.

Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson in May 2017 following the suspension of their licenses after they were unable to pay fees for traffic citations.

The drivers, who sought to bring a class-action suit, claimed the state violated their due process rights when it denied them notice of the opportunity to have an “ability to pay” hearing.

Although Fowler and Harris were denied class certification by U.S. District Judge Linda Parker, she ruled they have standing to challenge the state’s license suspension policy regarding indigent drivers.

Attorney John Fedynsky argued Wednesday on behalf of Secretary of State Johnson, and told the Sixth Circuit panel Judge Parker erred when she “simply assumed standing” for the plaintiffs.

The attorney cited the lack of any factual findings at the district court level, and pointed out that a footnote in Parker’s opinion “raised concerns regarding Ms. Fowler’s standing.”

Fedynsky argued that it was the plaintiffs’ failure to appear in court that led to their suspensions, not their failure to pay the fines.

U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar frequently interjected during Fedynsky’s argument, and repeatedly reminded the attorney that the case concerns the state’s failure to provide notice of the opportunity for a hearing, not the suspensions themselves.

“You may have the best process in the world,” Thapar said at one point, “but I’m talking about notice.”

Fedynsky told the court that the Michigan secretary of state is not responsible for printing the citations, and that, in any case, all of the information regarding the legal processes associated with the citations cannot be printed on each citation.

“The presumption ought to be that you should respond to a citation,” he said.

Attorney Phil Telfeyan argued on behalf of Fowler and Harris, and told the panel that Judge Parker correctly issued the injunction.

Judge Thapar asked the attorney if his clients could have discovered information regarding the possibility of a hearing on their own, and cited the 2015 Sixth Circuit ruling in Shoemaker v. City of Howell.

In Shoemaker, the court held that no due process violations occur if a citizen can find information regarding statutory requirements through “due diligence.”

Telfeyan responded that the statute does not allow for hearings about indigency, and his clients’ only options were to “admit and pay in full, or deny.”

Judge Thapar asked about the addition of a sentence on citations that would direct individuals to a website with information about indigency hearings, and whether that would qualify as notice.

The attorney agreed that it would, but added that courts would have to ensure that such hearings were held.

Michigan’s attorney, Fedynsky, told the panel in his rebuttal that the plaintiffs “placed themselves outside of any standing … [with their] decision not to engage [in the process].”

U.S. Circuit Judges Alice Batchelder and Bernice Donald rounded out the panel.

No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.

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