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Michigan should rethink suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fees, new report says


Judges are required to suspend your driver's license if you're unable to pay court debts in Michigan, one of just five states to do that, according to a new report. 

The Legal Aid Justice Center's nationwide report says the practice unfairly punishes poor people by taking away their ability to drive legally. Some states are beginning to rethink this practice.

According to the report, about 100,000 people in Michigan currently have their licenses suspended for inability to pay court fees.

Angela Ciolfi is with the Legal Aid Justice Center and is one of the authors. She says the report is just the beginning of the conversation on the so-called license-for-payment court system. 

“The goal of this report is to demonstrate that this is a national problem, and that more states should reexamine their laws,” Ciolfi said.

Ciolfi says the issue is that the courts make a lot of money from tickets and fees. 

“Funding the courts based on amounts that it collects from individuals that come before the court just runs contrary to any basic notions of justice and fairness,” she said.

Shelli Weisberg, Political Director at the ACLU of Michigan, says this system is not only immoral, but it is discriminatory.

“Taking away driver’s licenses, especially in Michigan, hurts people’s ability to work and support their families,” Weisberg said.

There is currently a federal lawsuit involving Michigan residents who are challenging the practice of suspending licenses. 

“The ACLU of Michigan not only supports this lawsuit and hopes that it moves forward, but we also hope that legislative changes can result from it. Our system should not be punishing poor people for being poor,” Weisberg said.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the defendant in the suit, could not be immediately reached for comment.   

You can read more about the report and the Legal Aid Justice Center at justice4all.org.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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