by Attorney Daryl Wood, JD
In an all-too-common story that is repeated over and over in the State of Michigan and all over the country, a person – we’ll call him George – is pulled over for speeding. The officer gives George a break and only issues him a ticket for No Proof of Insurance on Person – this way, George doesn’t have to appear for a hearing. The officer tells George, “Go to the courthouse, and get the ticket signed off, and you won’t have worry about appearing in front of the judge.” Following the officer’s advice, George takes his ticket up to the courthouse. As promised, the court clerk signs off on his ticket and charges George $25. However, a few weeks later, George receives a surprise in his mailbox – a bill for $200 in driver responsibility fees for each of the next two years.
Since money is tight, George sets up a payment plan with the Department of Treasury. He struggles to meet the payments and misses one. Because of his missed payment, George’s license is suspended. Unable to pay off the assessment right away and facing the loss of his employment, George continues to drive to and from work. It’s not long before he receives a ticket for Driving While License Suspended and another $500 driver responsibility fee assessment for each of the next two years.
Come tax time, George learns the hard way that if there is an outstanding driver responsibility fee, Michigan will intercept your state tax returns and take out the fee before sending you the rest of your tax return. George is now stuck in an uncontrollable cycle, which continues and just about consumes him.
How Did This Happen?
In 2003, the State of Michigan enacted the Driver Responsibility Fee through 2003 Senate Bill 509, Public Act 165 of 2003. Today the list of fees can be found at http://www.michigan.gov/driverresponsibility/0,1607,7-213-32166—,00.html. In 2003 – much like today – the Michigan Legislature was struggling to balance the state budget, when they decided to mirror a New Jersey program for driver responsibility fees. Statistics showed that New Jersey was boasting collection rates of 60% on these fees. Hoping for the same results, Michigan anticipated raising $74.8 million dollars per year from Driver Responsibility Fees. The Legislature adopted the driver responsible program, stating that its desire was to curb participation in serious driving offenses. In reality, Michigan’s actual collection rate was somewhat lower than New Jersey’s, and ended up at 48.5% through 2008.
Unfortunately, the driver responsibility program has had a devastating effect on the lower-income residents of this state. In 2005, there were 95,323 offenses involving Driving While License Suspended. By 2007, that statistic rose to 44%, or 137,673 cases. Since 2003, the State of Michigan has billed over $800 million but collected only approximately $400 million.
Many of the individuals that are assessed the driver responsibility fees are not even aware of the program until it is too late. Assessments of $200 for No Insurance or No Proof of Insurance and assessments of $150 for Expired License commonly surprise individuals who generally are not advised in advance of the consequences of pleas of responsibility or guilt. These fees don’t just hit you for one year, but they come back again the next year.
Here is the problem: The State created the program because it needed a new revenue stream, but even at the time they implemented it, their model for the program – New Jersey’s system – showed that they would never collect all of the fees. This meant that over 40% of the people who were covered by the far-reaching umbrella of the driver responsibility program would never be able to afford to pay off their driver responsibility fees, and thus would end up with suspended licenses and continually multiplying bills.
The consequence of this is that the legislature’s new revenue stream became a direct hit to low-income families and individuals. While the legislature knew that there was a very good chance that 40% of the people charged with these fees would be financially unable to pay, they failed to build a safety valve into the program. There currently is no way for low-income people to petition for a reduction in the outstanding balances based on financial hardship.
Why was this bill enacted? Those responsible for enacting the legislation wanted to be able to state to the public that they did not vote to raise taxes. However, this is really a tax in disguise – a punitive measure on low income individuals without judicial oversight.
Thank you, State Legislators, for creating a new criminal class for the poor. Even criminal restitution statutes allow for a person to avoid imprisonment based solely on their inability to pay. However, now that driver responsibility fees are the law, many in Michigan people face jail time for Driving While License Suspended for no other reason than that they are unable to pay their bills.
Attorney Daryl Wood is an experienced Michigan defense attorney, and a recognized legal expert on Driver’s License suspension and restoration issues. If you have received a ticket, have had a license suspended, or have been subject to Driver’s Responsibility fees in Michigan, Mr. Wood can help and advise you.
Contact Mr. Wood at: 313.278.8811 or 248.855.0911. Or visit his web site at http://www.crimlawattorney.com or http://www.drunkdrivingmichiganlawyer.com