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Court continues to side with drivers over fines, but some will have to wait for help

Michigan Sheriffs' Association

A federal judge has rejected an attempt to overturn her ruling that forbids the state from suspending driver’s licenses over traffic debt.

But the ruling doesn’t apply retroactively, so people who’ve already lost their licenses are out of luck for now.

U.S. District Judge Linda Parker ruled last week that suspending licenses over unpaid traffic debt violates due process rights, unless drivers get a court hearing to determine whether they actually can pay first.

John Philo is with the Sugar Law Center, which filed a class-action lawsuit on the behalf of one such driver, a Detroit woman who says she faces undue hardship because she can’t afford $276 to get her license reinstated.

Philo says people like her could get relief as the case moves forward. “Those people are more likely to be addressed in the next phase of the proceedings, where we determine whether these laws, as they’ve already been applied, is constitutional,” he said.

But Philo says there’s a better and faster solution: The state could change the law so that licenses aren’t automatically suspended without giving drivers a chance to argue their case.

“We hope that the state will do the right thing, and recognize the problem here,” Philo said.

There is widespread bipartisan support for that in Lansing. But for now, it appears Gov. Snyder and some Republican leaders aren’t on board.

It’s not clear what changes the state plans to comply with the judge’s order mandating court hearings.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office, says it’s still “reviewing it and what next steps are.”

In attempting to stay Judge Parker’s order while appealing to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the state argued that complying with the order would require a “Herculean effort,” while depriving local courts and communities of revenue. The judge rejected all those arguments.

Woodhams noted the ruling does not apply to Michigan’s controversial driver responsibility fees. Those are fees the state directly tacks onto the records of people with driving offenses.

The fees are scheduled to be phased out in 2019, but there’s widespread agreement the fees are counterproductive and unfair, and that the state should offer immediate amnesty to about 350,000 drivers owing more than $630 million in fees.

An amnesty bill passed the state House in November, but hit resistance in the Senate over budget concerns.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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