A class-action lawsuit alleges the state of Michigan traps its poorest citizens in poverty by suspending their licenses when they can’t pay traffic fines or fees. And it’s a perfect example as to why the law stipulating regressive fees should be reconsidered.
“As a nation, we encourage our citizens to be self-sufficient,” the group said in a statement announcing the suit, (which can be viewed here. “To take away someone’s ability to drive simply because they are too poor to pay a fine is unfair, unjust, and un-American.”
The secretary of state’s office says it’s simply abiding by Michigan statute, and while it may not be the intent of the law to entrap people in poverty, the case of both plaintiffs in the suit—single mothers who live in City of Detroit—shows that very well can be the effect. Michigan’s a state with notoriously unreliable public transportation—an even more problematic issue in Detroit, where one-in-three residents don’t own a vehicle and nearly 40 percent of residents are impoverished. And documents obtained by attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case show just how extensive the issue of inability to pay for reinstatement fees may be: since 2010, more than 100,000 people have had their license suspended for reasons not related to reckless driving. (The suit asserts that must mean “they are too poor to pay court costs and fines.”)
One of those individuals is 25-year-old Kitia Harris, a plaintiff in the case who was diagnosed in 2014 with interstitial cystitis, a physical disability that left her unable to work. A single mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Harris receives $1,200 per month in disability, the complaint says. She ran into issues after receiving a routine traffic violation, and owes $276 for unpaid tickets and fines. When she couldn’t afford the fees, the complaint says, the state suspended her license.
Then the problems really began.
Harris has at least two medical appointments per month at a doctor’s office located thirty minutes from her house, according to the complaint. She can’t ride a bus because of her medical condition, the complaint goes on, “so she’s often late to her appointments or has to cancel when she can’t find someone to drive her.”
“Her very health is at risk simply because she was too poor to pay a traffic ticket,” the complaint says.
A spokesperson for Johnson’s office told Jalopnik in an email that it doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation.
“However, the department does suspend a person’s driver’s license as required by state law after a court notifies it that a traffic ticket was not paid or the person did not appear in court,” the spokesperson said. “Traffic tickets are paid to the local court district.”
But the regressive nature of the fees, and the clip at which they accumulate, shows how quickly the issue can become a cyclical nightmare.
“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.”
Therein lies the issue: Without a license, it’s difficult to nail down a steady job in Michigan; without a job, however, it becomes increasingly difficult—if not impossible—to ensure you have a license. And studies have shown time and again that access to reliable transportation is necessary to escape poverty. And in places like Detroit, the jobs are outside the city; only about 30 percent of jobs in Detroit are held by residents of the city. That’s why access to a car becomes integral. A story from The New York Times described how necessary it is to finding steady employment:
In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.
The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.
The study notes the connection in places with notoriously long commutes and poverty, including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala.
The Daily Beast notes that Michigan isn’t the only state being accused of excessive fines for poor citizens looking to keep their license. California and Virginia, in particular, have been at the center of recent disputes, the news outlet reports:
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.
There’s other possible solutions, and the Michigan case should be the impetus for considering a different avenue. Finland, for instance, has a sliding scale for traffic fines. Here’s how it works, as conveyed by The Atlantic:
Finland’s system for calculating fines is relatively simple: It starts with an estimate of the amount of spending money a Finn has for one day, and then divides that by two—the resulting number is considered a reasonable amount of spending money to deprive the offender of. Then, based on the severity of the crime, the system has rules for how many days the offender must go without that money. Going about 15 mph over the speed limit gets you a multiplier of 12 days, and going 25 mph over carries a 22-day multiplier.
Most reckless drivers pay between €30 and €50 per day, for a total of about €400 or €500. Finland’s maximum multiplier is 120 days, but there’s no ceiling on the fines themselves—the fine is taken as a constant proportion of income whether you make €80,000 a year or €800,000.
Yes, that draws inflammatory headlines‚ like the Atlantic article’s title, “Finland, Home Of The $103,000 Speeding Ticket”—but the one-off occasion of that is far-more palatable than accepting it’s just fine to suppress someone’s ability to escape poverty because of insurmountable fees.
The Michigan lawsuit, filed in federal court by the nonprofit group Equal Justice Under Law and the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, says the state’s methods violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment. The complaint asks a judge to order Michigan to reinstate suspended licenses for those who couldn’t pay court fines and to enjoin the state from processing license suspensions for unpaid court debt.