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Court OKs Michigan License Suspension for Indigent Drivers

Flat man driver license plastic card template, id card vector illustration.
By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

A federal appeals court ruled that Michigan may suspend driver's licenses for people who don't pay fines -- even if they cannot afford to pay.

In Fowler v. Benson, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said the state has a legitimate interest in suspending licenses to get people to pay their fines. Over the objections of the plaintiffs and legal aid groups, the appeals court said the state did not violate anybody's constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. It was not an easy decision, however, as one judge lodged in dissent. In any case, it just got harder for poor people to drive in Michigan.

Opponents said the law is irrational because paying fines will be more difficult for people who don't have driver's licenses. The question is simple: How are they supposed to pay when they can't get to work?

"This issue affects hundreds of thousands of people in Michigan alone, and millions more across the country," said Phil Telfeyan, who argued the appeal. Judge Alice Batchelder, writing for a divided court, had a different view. She said the state's policy was "rationally related to the government's interest" in collecting civil penalties. '"Michigan's choice to wield the cudgel of driver's-license suspension for nonpayment of court debt dramatically heightens the incentive to pay," she wrote for the 2-1 majority. Judge Bernice Bouie Donald dissented, faulting the state for punishing indigent drivers. The appeals panel reversed the trial court, where the rubber first met the road.

A Hard Road

Adrian Fowler, the lead plaintiff in the case, said she could not find a job to pay the $2,121 the court had assessed her. The available jobs were not accessible by public transportation. Like Fowler, Kitia Harris, the other named plaintiff, was the sole caretaker of a young daughter. Harris said she couldn't afford to pay a $276 fine, and couldn't get to medical appointments.

It is a hard road in many states, according to a report from the Legal Aid Justice Center. In 2017, the non-profit said 43 states and Washington DC authorized license suspensions for unpaid court debt and 40 states allowed it without regard to a driver's ability to pay. California is one of a handful of states that have stopped the practice. In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown said "there does not appear to be a strong connection" between the license suspensions and collections. In March that year, about 488,000 people had their licenses suspended for unpaid traffic tickets or missing court appearances.

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