Too Broke to Drive

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Slate – By: Henry Grabar

The first time Shane Moon lost his driver’s license was in 2013, when his girlfriend was pregnant with his first child. Moon, a construction worker in Lapeer, Michigan, near Flint, was having trouble making ends meet and had let his car insurance lapse. “I don’t make a whole lot of money,” Moon said. “It’s the only thing I could possibly get away with not paying.” He got a ticket for driving without insurance and a special Michigan penalty called a “driver responsibility fee,” which can cost violators up to $1,000 over two years. He couldn’t afford to pay that either and missed his court appearance. His license was suspended, bringing on an additional reinstatement fee. But he had to keep driving to get to construction jobs, often 90 miles from home. Each time he was pulled over—often for his outdated tags—the state hit him with another ticket for hundreds of dollars.

Four years later, Moon is homeless and struggling to keep up with tickets that have him paying as much as a third of his income to local and state governments each year for fines and fees alone. “My ship has sank. I don’t know how I’ll make it out of it this time. I feel like a total loser failing my family,” he told me. “If I can’t pay my tickets, shame on me, but don’t take my license away from me. Don’t take my standard of living away from me.” He continues to drive to work every day, without insurance or a license.

Moon is one of tens of thousands of Michiganders who have been trapped in a cycle of debt and criminality stemming from a suspended driver’s license and the accompanying series of fines that begin with the state’s driver responsibility fee. The penalty was first proposed in 2003, by Michigan state Sen. Jud Gilbert, who sponsored a bill to create an automatic fine tacked onto vehicular offenses both mundane ($100 for hitting seven points on a license) and serious ($1,000 for murder). The state was in a financial crisis, but as the fee’s name implied, Gilbert thought the new penalties—suggested to him by the majority leader at the time—would improve driver safety. They were portrayed that way in the press, too: The Detroit Free Press’ driving columnist called the fee an “immaturity penalty.”

In 2014, the Republican-controlled statehouse voted by an overwhelming majority to abolish the policy, in recognition that the fee had simply been a “money grab,” in the words of Joe Haveman, the representative who sponsored the repeal. Gilbert agreed with that view and regretted his sponsorship. “Quite frankly, before it was all said and done, it seemed like it was all about the money,” he told the Holland Sentinel at the time. The fee will be phased out by the end of 2019.

Michigan set a trap for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents. In the meantime, however, it remains a heavy burden on Michigan’s poor. In the 2016 fiscal year, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by Equal Justice Under the Law, a group that is challenging the practice, the state assessed $40.4 million in fees for driving with a suspended license alone, collecting $26.7 million. Suspended license violations accounted for about half the state’s responsibility fees. Many of those people had their licenses suspended not for dangerous driving but because they were broke and couldn’t pay fees they had previously been assessed—in some cases, court debt for nondangerous offenses like parking tickets. The fee is a way that Michigan, after punishing debtors with license suspension, binds license suspendees with debt.

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