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State to Make Driver's Aware of Options to Avoid License Suspension

LANSING – Despite a favorable court decision that would allow the Secretary of State to continue to suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay court fees, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson joined with Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack to help people avoid suspension.

A May decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Fowler v Johnson upheld the Secretary of State’s practice to suspend driver’s licenses, saying: “That this policy may in many cases make that … payment harder to accomplish does not show that the law lacks a rational basis.”

“While it was clear the state would likely prevail, this onerous policy clearly penalized low-income drivers, putting them in a no-win situation by severely limiting their mobility and access to employment,” Nessel said. “It is time to re-evaluate laws that effectively criminalize being poor.”

As a result of the state’s offer to settle the case, the following sentence will be added to Michigan citations and court forms:  “If you are not able to pay any fine or costs due to financial hardship, contact the court immediately to request a payment alternative.”

“I am proud that we are working to stop penalizing poverty,” said Benson. “There is a disconnect of logic in this law, and all Michiganders benefit when we make the justice system more fair.”

The new standard language must be part of the state forms within one year of the effective date of the settlement (Feb. 13, 2021).

“Driver’s license suspensions are one of the leading factors for sky high jail admissions in Michigan,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. “This action is an important step toward reducing how many people come into contact with the system. It moves us closer to ensuring our policies treat people across the state fairly despite their socio-economic status.”

Chief Justice McCormack agreed.

“This agreement builds on efforts by Michigan’s judiciary to make sure that judges determine on the record a litigant's ability to pay fines and fees and provide those who can't pay with potential alternatives like community service. And it resonates with some key findings and recommendations of the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration,” McCormack said. “For example, the Task Force has recommended that licenses should not be suspended for reasons unrelated to safe driving like inability to pay fines and fees. Michigan is poised to become a national leader in criminal justice reform; we can protect rights, makes communities safer, and treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

“Criminal justice reforms, such as this settlement agreement, benefit the entire criminal justice system,” stated Col. Joe Gasper, director of the Michigan State Police. “I applaud the work of the Attorney General’s office and the Department of State to reach this agreement, which supports the important work of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.”

A copy of the settlement agreement is available here.