A class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in Michigan accuses the state of suspending the driver’s licenses of people with safe driving records simply because they are too poor to pay traffic violation fines and fees. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Ruth Johnson, Michigan secretary of state, by Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. “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,” said a spokeswoman for the group. Read the full text of the Michigan Complaint here.
The suit was filed on behalf of Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, both of Detroit. Each had their driving privileges suspended when they were unable to pay fines for traffic infractions. Equal Justice says Harris, who suffers from a physical disability, can’t drive herself to medical appointments and that Fowler has had difficulty finding and keeping a job. Both are mothers who live below the poverty line, the group says. “Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that goes far beyond a fine,” says Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice. “It is an attack on a person’s independence, pride and character.” On Wednesday, The Crime Report detailed a new study with similar themes by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. That group said the suspension of driver’s licenses over an inability to pay for traffic infractions can prompt a cascade of problems, including job loss, deepening poverty and incarceration.