Back in 2003, as part of an effort to plug a budget hole, Michigan’s then-Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm passed a law that implemented extra fees for driving offenses committed by people with at least 7 points on their driving record. Hundreds of thousands of drivers, unable to pay the fees, had their licenses suspended as a result. In total, $637 million is currently owed by drivers—but, finally, Michigan’s forgiving the fees, after properly being shamed for trapping countless drivers in a cycle of debt.
Known as Driver Responsibility Fees, the burdensome extra fees ranged from $100-$500 per year, and could be as much as $1,000 per year for anyone convicted for, say, driving on a suspended license. If you didn’t pay, Michigan Radio notes, your license was suspended.
Many drivers indeed lost their license. Of the nearly 350,000 people who owe the $637 million in fees, about 300,000 had their license suspended, reports the Detroit Free Press. But the fees became so unpopular, that Michigan’s Republican-led legislature passed a set of bills to phase them out by the end of the year. The bills were signed last week by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
On Oct. 1, the fees will be outright eliminated. Drivers who lost their license can apply for it to be reinstated, and a $125 fee will be waived if they get their license by Dec. 31, the Free Press notes.
There’s some caveats, which the Free Press highlighted on Monday:
But for those whose licenses have been suspended for four or more years, that reinstatement will have to include successfully completing both written and road driving tests, as well as a requirement to show pieces of identification revealing the driver has a Social Security number and is a resident of Michigan.
And there will be costs associated with those extra hoops. If the driver passes the written test, he or she will have to practice driving and then take the road-skills test, which is provided by a third-party tester, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office. Tester fees generally cost about $50 per driver. The driver also will have to pay a $25 fee to the Secretary of State to get a temporary permit until a driver’s license arrives in the mail.
Michigan made headlines throughout 2017 for bad car policy that ensnared low-income drivers in debt—in particular, a federal lawsuit alleges the state traps its poorest citizens in poverty by suspending their licenses when they can’t pay traffic fines or fees, something highlighted by the Driver Responsibility Fees.
As Jalopnik reported last year, the lawsuit said Michigan’s methods violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, and in December, a judge agreed, temporarily blocking the state from engaging in the practice.
“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,” the complaint, filed by nonprofit group Equal Justice Under Law and the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, says. 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.”
While the elimination of the Driver Responsibility Fees takes action against the regressive fines some drivers have face for years, Equal Justice Under Law pointed out that an estimated 100,000 drivers will still be unable to get their license reinstated, simply because they can’t afford the fees.
“An estimated more than 100,000 drivers will still have suspended licenses solely because they are unable to pay fines and late fees, and this legislation does nothing to restore driving rights for those whose only crime is being too poor to pay court debt,” the group said in a statement.
“The same reasoning that convinced the legislature to end driver responsibility fees should also lead the state to end its driver’s license suspension scheme. Suspending licenses of people who are too poor to pay their court debt is both unfair and bad public policy.”