STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Do traffic fines unjustly punish drivers who are too poor to pay them?

parking ticket on car
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Traffic tickets are an inconvenient expense. And if they aren't paid within a certain amount of time, you incur costly fees that only make the ticket harder to pay off.

But if you're poor, a ticket can be nearly impossible to pay. And unpaid violations can result in a suspended license or jail time, which means you can't go to work to pay your bills – including the ticket – digging you further into poverty.

Recently, some police departments have been found to be systematically issuing trivial fines and court costs against their poorest citizens to raise revenue, according to Slate.

Last week, a small city outside Ferguson, Missouri agreed to pay almost $5 million to 2,000 residents who served jail time for not paying fines and fees for traffic and other petty violations – ending a legal battle that lasted more than a year.

Issues with jailing practices in the city of Jennings were brought to light by the U.S. justice department during its investigation into the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. According to The New York Times:

Those who were fined and jailed would routinely be shuttled around the county from jail to jail on various warrants for unpaid tickets. In Jennings, which has a population of roughly 14,750, the lawsuit found that the city had issued about twice as many warrants as there are households, "mostly in cases involving unpaid debts for tickets."

Last year, the city stopped jailing people for unpaid fines and got rid of cash bails, opting instead for payment plans for fines, based on the person's ability to pay. A similar suit is also in progress in Ferguson.

But this issue was not exclusive to Missouri. This past week, a statewide federal class-action suit was filed against Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles challenging the state's system of suspending people's licenses when they're too poor to pay the court costs and fines. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch:

The complaint alleges that the failure to take into account reasons for nonpayment or to consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses is discriminatory and in violation of constitutional protections. Offenders who are more affluent can pay in order to avoid suspensions, but many low-income people cannot and get trapped in a vicious cycle when deprived of transportation to jobs, so they cannot make money to pay their financial obligations to the courts, alleges the suit filed by the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center.

Angela Ciolfi is a lawyer at the Legal Aid Justice Center. She tells the Richmond-Times Dispatch, "Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses."

In 2003, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation to create the state's driver responsibility fee for people convicted of reckless driving, drunk driving, or driving without a valid license. The fines of $500 to $1,000 are assessed once or twice a year.

And if a driver doesn't pay it and is caught driving again, not only can the fee be charged multiple times, but their license can be revoked.

But last year, the state House and Senate unanimously passed a bill to end the fee. A three-year plan to phase it out began last October, according to MLive. Kentwood District Court Judge William Kelly was one of the most vocal opponents of the fee. He told MLive he saw drivers with more than $10,000 in debt who would never be able to pay the fees, in large part because they have no reliable transportation in order to keep a job. Kelly said:

The driver responsibility fee is a tax on the poorest people in our state. It's a second punishment for the same crime -- double jeopardy. It's costly for locals to collect and has no connection to driver safety.

Getting out of the cycle of poverty is difficult. If we expect people to get ahead, we need to look at systems that essentially punish them for being poor.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.