The state of Michigan is keeping its poorest citizens in a cycle of poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses when they can’t afford to pay court debts, a class-action lawsuit filed by two single mothers in Detroit claims.
As a result of minor traffic violations and unpaid fees, the women lost their licenses—and, they say, the opportunity to find better-paying jobs.
Adrian Fowler, a 31-year-old mother to a 3-year-old girl, owes $2,121 for unpaid traffic tickets and fines. She makes $8.90 an hour—Michigan’s current minimum wage—at a security firm. But she says she’s been forced to turn down higher-paying work outside Detroit because she can’t afford to reinstate her license.
“They don’t want to work with us. They want to keep us in poverty,” Fowler told The Daily Beast on Friday.“You have to choose between paying for your electricity or your driver’s license,” she added. “You shouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on and being able to move around [in a car] to survive.”
“This is a moneymaking scheme for Michigan, but it’s completely irrational because they are piling fees on people who cannot afford them,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, which filed the lawsuit.“And then they’re punishing those people for no other reason than they are too poor to pay,” Telfeyan added.
Equal Justice Under Law, a national civil-rights organization, filed the lawsuit against Michigan’s Secretary of State, Ruth Johnson, on Thursday. The Washington, D.C.-based group accuses Michigan of running a “wealth-based … scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.”
According to the complaint, Michigan’s State Department automatically and indefinitely suspends the licenses of people who owe court-ordered fines and other fees, even if they cannot afford to pay those fees.
California is also facing lawsuits over license suspensions.
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.