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Michigan sued for suspending driver’s licenses of people who are poor

Today, Equal Justice Under Law, a national civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., filed a class action lawsuit against Ruth Johnson, the Secretary of State in Michigan, for suspending the driver’s licenses of people with safe driving records who are too poor to pay the debts they owe to the state for traffic violations or court costs.

Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, the two named plaintiffs in the suit, are both residents of Detroit and mothers of young children. They each were stopped for routine traffic violations, but when they could not afford to pay the fines — because they live well below the poverty line — the state suspended their driver’s licenses. Now, Kitia, who suffers from a physical disability, can’t drive herself to her medical appointments, and Adrian has had difficulty finding and keeping a job.

If Kitia and Adrian had enough money to pay their fines, the state never would have suspended their licenses. They only lost their ability to drive because they are poor.

Such wealth-based schemes not only trap our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty, but they make no sense. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. Furthermore, residents with suspended licenses cannot fulfill daily responsibilities: taking their children to school, caring for elderly family members, or going to the doctor’s office.

Phil Telfeyan, founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, says, “Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that goes far beyond a fine. It is an attack on a person’s independence, pride, and character. As a nation, we encourage our citizens to be self- sufficient. To take away someone’s ability to drive simply because they are too poor to pay a fine is unfair, unjust, and un-American. This lawsuit is the beginning of the process to end the state’s unjust system and restore driving rights to tens of thousands of residents.”

The lawsuit (Case No. 17-11441) has been filed in partnership with the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice and the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS).



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