Reform Of Fee-Based License Suspensions Hits Roadblock

By RJ Vogt | May 19, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Last January, a Michigan federal judge ordered the state to start offering ability-to-pay hearings before suspending people's driver's licenses due to unpaid court debt. The order, a win for more than 100,000 Michiganders with suspended licenses, was the first of several similar court rulings across the country.

But earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, finding that suspending driver's licenses due to unpaid court fines and fees is "rationally related to the government's interest" because it "dramatically heightens the incentive to pay."

Reformers say the May 8 ruling is a stunning blow to a national movement to eradicate wealth-based suspensions, as well as to the two single mothers in the case who'd argued that the suspensions kept them from the very job opportunities that might help them pay their fees for civil infractions like impeding traffic and speeding.

"I was absolutely surprised — would even say I was shocked," said Phil Telfeyan, the Equal Justice Under Law litigator who represented Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris. "Our clients still can't drive for relatively small amounts of money."

In Judge Alice M. Batchelder's majority opinion, she acknowledged that "perhaps plaintiffs are right that the policy is unwise, even counterproductive" to the government's pursuit of payment.

"But ... that this policy may in many cases make that — now more highly incentivized — payment harder to accomplish does not show that the law lacks a rational basis," she said, going on to quote the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision James v. Strange: "Misguided laws may nonetheless be constitutional."

The law in Michigan is not unusual. "Driven by Dollars," a September 2017 report released by Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center, found that 43 states plus Washington, D.C., suspend driver's licenses because of unpaid court debt.

This debt often begins with citations, as it did with Harris, when she was ticketed for impeding traffic. The resulting $150 fine was too much for her at the time, and her failure to pay led to additional fees and ultimately a license suspension that would cost $145 to reverse.

When the 2017 report came out, just five states, Michigan among them, accounted for an estimated 4.2 million total suspended or revoked licenses due to court debt.

Only four states at the time required pre-suspension ability-to-pay hearings, but in the 20 months since that report came out, judges in three states have ruled such hearings are constitutionally necessary under the 14th Amendment's due process clause.

Michigan's U.S. District Judge Linda Parker was the first to do so, issuing the injunction that the Sixth Circuit's May 8 ruling overturned.

Last July, a Tennessee federal judge also found that suspending licenses over unpaid fees without offering an ability-to-pay hearing violated the due process and equal protection rights of a class that could include over 130,000 people. A Virginia federal judge followed suit in December, though that ruling pertained only to the named plaintiffs, not a class.

Similar class actions are pending in Oregon, North Carolina, Alabama and Texas federal courts. Telfeyan said he and his clients in Michigan are considering petitioning the Sixth Circuit for a rehearing.

In the meantime, Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said that the appellate court's affirmation of Michigan's suspensions spells trouble for Tennesseans who thought they'd been rescued by that state's July ruling: Tennessee's appeal is pending at the Sixth Circuit.

She added that the Judge Batchelder's majority opinion was wrong to hold that suspensions increase a debtor's incentive to pay up, citing her organization's findings that people rarely get their license reinstated as soon as they find out its suspended.

"Suspending someone's driver's license does not magically put money in their pocket," Foster said. "On the contrary, close to half the people who lose their license lose their job."

A representative for the Michigan attorney general's office said it is reviewing the decision but did not comment further on either the majority opinion or the scathing dissent by Judge Bernice B. Donald.

That dissent, which took the majority to task for misreading multiple Supreme Court precedents, acknowledged Michigan's claim that the mothers would have learned about payment alternatives if they'd shown up in court for the original traffic violations. But if that were true, Judge Donald said the state should have explained the alternatives in statute or at least on its website.

"It is undisputed that the only notice provided to plaintiffs instructs them that they must pay the costs in full," she said.

Judge Donald said the state also never explained "how suspending the driver's license of a person who is truly unable to pay makes it any more likely that Michigan will recover the costs it seeks to collect."

"The majority's decision today erodes essential constitutional promises," she concluded.

In that, she is not alone: legislators in Montana, Mississippi, Idaho, California, Washington D.C. and Virginia have all taken steps to curb wealth-based driver's license suspensions. Campaigns in Florida and New York are pushing a similar agenda.

Montana's law took effect this month, offering an estimated 19,000 Montanans a path to driving once more.

"There's more momentum legislatively," Foster said. "The litigation is important, it shines a light on the problem and it puts pressure on legislators to act. But the remedy is typically a better remedy when its legislative — the legislature can stop suspensions all together."

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