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Lawsuit targets DWP (Driving While Poor)

Tinker A.F. base
Lawsuit targets "Driving While Poor" punishment

A civil rights group says it's unconstitutional for the Michigan Secretary of State to suspend the drivers licenses of people who are too poor to pay their fines. 

Equal Justice Under Law has filed a class action lawsuit against Ruth Johnson, Secretary of State, for suspending the driver's licenses of people merely because they are too impoverished to pay a fine.

One of the plaintiffs is Kitia Harris. She says she was driving 10 miles over the speed limit when police stopped her and gave her a $150 ticket.  She is disabled and can't work, and was too poor to pay the fine.

"I did call to find out if I could get on a payment plan," says Harris.  "They told me no, you have to pay the ticket in full."

She couldn't pay the original fine, and to make matters worse, the state added late penalties and other costs until she owed $275 dollars, and then took her drivers license. 

The lawsuit says the practice violates the constitutional rights of thousands of very low-income Michiganders, and the state should give them their licenses back. 

Phil Telfeyan is Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law.  He says the state could offer poor people alternatives to fines they cannot pay, such as community service, or they could offer payment plans as low as $5.00 a month.

"At least the state would be getting something," he says. "As it is now, they're getting nothing."

He says on top of that, the state is often pushing people out of jobs they can no longer keep once they lose their driver's licenses.  That means they may no longer pay taxes and may also require state benefits to support themselves and their families.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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