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Five things to know about the end of Michigan's Driver Responsibility Fees

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Last week, Gov. Snyder signed legislation ending the state’s much-hated Driver Responsibility Fees (DRFs). 

Those were extra feestacked on to different driving offenses that ranged from $100-$500 per year for people with 7-15 points on their driving record, plus stand alone fines of $150-$1000 per year for anyone convicted of “Category 2” offenses (everything from driving on a suspended license to drunk driving). Failure to pay got your license suspended.

These fees, passed in 2003 under former Gov. Granholm to fill a budget hole, proved crushing for many. More than 300,000 people statewide collectively owed around $600 million. In Detroit alone, around 70,000 people owed more than $100 million. Hundreds of thousands of people had their licenses suspended because they were unable to pay the fees, leaving many trapped in a cycle of debt and unable to legally drive—in some cases, to the very employment opportunities that could have put them in a position to pay the fees, along with the additional $125 license reinstatement fee that applied only to DRFs.

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Despite generating somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million a year for the state’s general fund, DRFs had become so uniformly unpopular and widely-acknowledged as bad policy that the state legislature pressured Gov. Snyder to accelerate an initial phase-out set for 2019. But the wrap-up is a little complicated. Here are five key things to know:

  • The DRF program officially ends October 1, 2018. This is the day the state will officially cease issuing new DRFs and attempting to collect outstanding ones. This means that if you owe DRFs, those fees are automatically wiped out, and you can have your license reinstated by the Michigan Secretary of State.
  • Relief comes earlier if you’re on a payment plan. If you entered into a state payment plan to pay off the balance of your DRFs before Feb. 1, 2018, your fines are cleared and you do not need to pay off the balance. You are eligible to get your license reinstated right now at no further cost.
  • $125 DRF reinstatement fee is canceled…for now. Whether you’re on a payment plan and your fees have already been wiped out, or you’re waiting for them to be wiped clean on October 1, you won’t have to pay that separate $125 license reinstatement fee the state charged on top of the DRFs. However, that provision sunsets at the end of 2018.
  • If your license has been suspended four or more years. Of course there’s at least one catch we know of so far: If your license has been suspended for four or more years because of DRFs, you need to take a written driving test and road test before getting your license reinstated.
  • An important note—this all applies solely to DRFs. All of those fees, including any unpaid balances, will be wiped out as of October 1. However, anyone who had additional unpaid fees related to underlying driving infractions still has to pay those off (including separate license reinstatement fees, if applicable).

The Michigan Secretary of State is still rolling out the process for people hit with DRFs getting their driving privileges back. See http://www.michigan.gov/driverresponsibility for more information.

The end of DRFs closes a big chapter in an ongoing battle over Michigan’s traffic laws, which many see as unfairly punitive and harmful to the poor. One ongoing federal court case, Fowler v. Johnson, challenges whether the state can suspend licenses at all over unpaid fines and fees resulting from traffic tickets or other driving offenses (though DRFs fell into separate category). The Michigan Secretary of State’s office says it received some 590,000 requests from the state’s district courts to suspend licenses over unpaid traffic tickets from September 2016-September 2017.

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In December, a judge ruled that practice violated due process rights of people who are truly unable to pay, unless Michigan courts provide those people with a true opportunity to prove that inability before suspending their license. In other words, courts must hold so-called “ability-to-pay hearings,” where a judge determines if someone isn’t paying because they’re negligent or refusing to—or whether they are truly unable to pay. In the latter case, the court says the state must order alternative means for a person to compensate the state without having their driving privileges suspended.

The state is challenging the judge’s ruling in that lawsuit in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Right now, that order is on hold while the court decides whether plaintiffs in the case have standing to challenge the state driving rules at all. The state is also challenging the plaintiffs’ effort to have the lawsuit certified as a class-action case.  

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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