A federal judge on Friday blocked Michigan from suspending driver’s licenses for motorists who can’t pay traffic fines or fees, the Detroit Free Press reports, stopping, for now, a fucked-up practice that could trap residents in poverty.
Advocates fighting to end the practice said the decision by Judge Linda Parker of U.S. District Court in Detroit could restore the driving rights of those who had their license suspended for being unable to pay off traffic fines. The judge’s decision is likely the first of its kind in the U.S., the Freep reports, as there’s 39 other states with similar laws on the books.
The decision could impact as many as 100,000 residents.
Here’s more from the Freep:
Filed earlier this year by Equal Justice Under Law, the lawsuit says the state of Michigan is unfairly suspending the licenses of 100,000 people facing court debts because they can’t afford to pay them.
In her ruling Thursday, Judge Parker, a former director of the Michigan Dept. of Civil Rights, said the Secretary of State’s suspensions violates the rights of Michiganders. Parker wrote there is “a strong likelihood that Plaintiffs will show that the law violates procedural due process.”
“It’s enormous,” Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney and Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, said of the judge’s decision. “Judge Parker handled the issue so thoroughly. It’s the first preliminary injunction by a federal court across the country dealing with wealth-based license suspensions. ... I hope the Sec. of State steps up the plate to answer these constitutional violations as quickly as possible.”
Fred Woodhams, a spokesperson for Michigan’s secretary of state, told the newspaper that it’s working with the courts to establish a new process that complies with the order, and more information is forthcoming in the near future.
The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit group Equal Justice Under Law and the Sugar Law Center, said the state’s method violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
The issue here is obvious. The regressive nature of Michigan’s fees accrue at a rapid clip, creating a cyclical nightmare of sorts for low-income drivers, as Jalopnik reported earlier this year.
“Anyone whose license has been suspended due to a violation of the prohibition on driving while one’s license is suspended (DWLS) must pay a reinstatement fee of $125 to the Secretary of State before her license can be reinstated,” according to the complaint. Those who can’t afford to pay their debt must pay a $45 fee before the suspension is lifted, the complaint says, “and this figure may multiply if an individual owes multiple debts.”
The issue’s particularly acute in Metro Detroit, which lacks solid public transportation. Without a license, it’s hard to land steady work; without a job, it becomes difficult to ensure you have a license. Numerous studies have shown that access to reliable transportation is necessary to escape poverty, an issue that’s at the heart of this case.
Separately, Michigan’s legislature is working on a set of bills that would phase out the suspension program.
“This statue is really harming the state’s ability to collect court debts — Judge Parker made that point loud and clear,” Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney and Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, told the Freep. “By trapping people in a cycle of poverty, they are less likely to recoup the debt.”