The State Making Money Off Its Poorest Drivers

This state is keeping its poorest citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty by taking away their licenses when they need them the most, a new lawsuit claims.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The state of Michigan is keeping its poorest citizens in a cycle of poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses when they can’t afford to pay court debts, a class-action lawsuit filed by two single mothers in Detroit claims.

As a result of minor traffic violations and unpaid fees, the women lost their licenses—and, they say, the opportunity to find better-paying jobs.

Adrian Fowler, a 31-year-old mother to a 3-year-old girl, owes $2,121 for unpaid traffic tickets and fines. She makes $8.90 an hour—Michigan’s current minimum wage—at a security firm. But she says she’s been forced to turn down higher-paying work outside Detroit because she can’t afford to reinstate her license.

“They don’t want to work with us. They want to keep us in poverty,” Fowler told The Daily Beast on Friday.

“You have to choose between paying for your electricity or your driver’s license,” she added. “You shouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on and being able to move around [in a car] to survive.”

Meanwhile, Kitia Harris owes $276 in unpaid traffic tickets and fees. The 25-year-old has a medical condition that resulted in her losing her job last year. Now, she says, she relies on friends to take her to doctor’s appointments 30 miles away. When no one can help her, she is forced to cancel or reschedule her medical care.

“This is a moneymaking scheme for Michigan, but it’s completely irrational because they are piling fees on people who cannot afford them,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, which filed the lawsuit.

“And then they’re punishing those people for no other reason than they are too poor to pay,” Telfeyan added.

Equal Justice Under Law, a national civil-rights organization, filed the lawsuit against Michigan’s Secretary of State, Ruth Johnson, on Thursday. The Washington, D.C.-based group accuses Michigan of running a “wealth-based … scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.”

Johnson’s office did not respond to messages left by The Daily Beast on Friday.

According to the complaint, Michigan’s State Department automatically and indefinitely suspends the licenses of people who owe court-ordered fines and other fees, even if they cannot afford to pay those fees.

This penalty is in violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit claims. And the policy eliminates destitute motorists’ “job opportunities and [impedes] their ability to take care of their children and obtain necessary medical treatment,” the complaint alleges.

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Making matters worse, the fees often continue to pile up for impoverished drivers.

Once court debts are paid, the Secretary of State requires a $45 fee before a suspension is lifted.

If these drivers choose to drive with their suspended license, they face an additional 30-day suspension and $125 reinstatement fee, court papers state.

If they’re convicted of misdemeanor driving with a suspended license, they could owe a Driver Responsibility Fee of up to $1,000 over two years.

According to the lawsuit, Michigan has charged $40 million in Driver Responsibility fees over the last three years, and more than 100,000 people have lost their licenses—many because they are too poor to pay court costs.

“These suspensions deprive some of Michigan’s poorest residents of their only reliable means of transportation to and from work, further diminishing their ability to meet their court-ordered financial obligations,” the complaint says.

The scheme “lacks any rational basis” because suspending the licenses of the poor will have a negative effect on their ability to pay court debts, court papers allege.

Michigan isn’t the only state under fire for penalizing low-income drivers.

A similar class-action suit was filed in Virginia last summer by the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center, which says nearly one million drivers have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines.

The lawsuit was dismissed in March, however, when a federal judge ruled he had no jurisdiction over the matter but the state courts did. (The plaintiffs filed an appeal of this decision in April, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.)

Still, the U.S. Department of Justice sided with the state’s low-income drivers. In a brief filed in support of the class-action suit last year, DOJ civil rights lawyers agreed that Virginia’s practice violated the Constitution’s due process clause.

California is also facing lawsuits over license suspensions.

Last August, civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles Superior Court for suspending licenses of low-income drivers, suggesting this practice disproportionately affected black and Latino residents.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the motorists, said the court did not examine whether the drivers “willfully” ignored their fines or were too broke to pay the penalties before suspending their licenses.

According to the suit, Gloria Mata Alvarado received a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt and was ordered to pay $700. She and her husband are disabled and have a $1,500 monthly income. When a judge reduced her fine to $600, she still couldn’t pay, so the court ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend her license.

The ACLU of Northern California filed a statewide lawsuit against the Department of Motor Vehicles in October 2016 to address the issue.

In Fowler’s case, she says her $712 monthly income from her part-time job makes it impossible to pay her court fees.

Fowler had acquired three traffic tickets while living in Georgia, from 2008 to 2012, but was unable to pay them. When she moved to Michigan in 2012, she was unable to renew her license because of the Georgia court debts.

The fees piled on in winter of that year, when Fowler’s baby daughter developed a 103-degree fever during an ice storm. She feared EMS wouldn’t arrive on time, so she drove her baby to the hospital despite having a suspended license.

While speeding to the hospital, a police officer pulled her over in Ferndale. He was sympathetic to her emergency and let her go, but not without citations for speeding and driving with a suspended license that totaled nearly $600.

Sometime later, Fowler went to the Ferndale courthouse and said she couldn’t afford her tickets, but she was told that if she didn’t pay in three weeks, a warrant would be issued for her arrest, the lawsuit states.

Fowler believes she has warrants for her arrest in Ferndale, Eastpointe, and Oak Park for missed court dates. And the Ferndale warrant carries an additional fee of $500, while the others have fees of $800 each.

“It affects me tremendously,” Fowler said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I am a single parent. As far as resources, trying to be secure a better career for me and my family, I have to go outside the city. With my license being suspended, it’s hindering me from pursuing different career options.

“I’ve had to turn down two jobs because of my license suspension,” she added. “I’m trying to move out of the city, but I don’t want to until I get my license together. Outside the city, I’m more likely to get pulled over.”

Fowler says she’s been without a driver’s license for almost five years.

“I currently have three warrants just in traffic,” she said. “I’m in no other trouble. That is the only thing that is really hindering me.”

“I feel like I’m being punished, because I want to be an upstanding citizen and provide for my family but I can’t because of… all these different fees,” she added. “The reason I cannot do this or that is because of my license.”