The latest hurdle to employment in Michigan? Traffic fines.
Interactive map: Driver responsibility fees by ZIP Code
With updated data: Explore this map by hovering over each ZIP code to see stats on the number of affected drivers in that area and their average debt.
Editor's note: This story has been updated. Michigan Department of Treasury officials acknowledge they severely under-reported the amount of fees owed statewide and in Detroit. The story was changed to reflect the new numbers.
Tens of millions of dollars in traffic fines that lawmakers began phasing out five years ago continue to haunt Michigan drivers and are blamed for putting a crimp on the Detroit region’s workforce.
State data show more than 317,000 drivers statewide owe nearly $595 million in Driver Responsibility Fees, a widely unpopular system of fees, amounting to a state tax on traffic tickets, that keeps people from driving legally when not paid.
In Detroit, more than 70,000 motorists owed the state $114 million in fees in June for past traffic violations that usually result in a suspended driver’s license. Driving is a necessity in a city where 64 percent of employed residents travel to the suburbs each day for work.
The burden of unpaid driver responsibility fees has caught the attention of Detroit’s Workforce Development Board, a panel of mostly corporate CEOs who are trying to address deep-seated problems that hinder the employability of Detroiters and a growing labor shortage.
Incarcerated Detroiters in employment-training programs often return to the city with newly acquired job skills, but are saddled with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in driver responsibility fees that may have escalated while they were imprisoned, said Cindy Pasky, president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions.
Driver debt, by the numbers
State data shows more than 317,000 drivers statewide owe nearly $595 million in Driver Responsibility Fees. Here’s how those numbers break down:
Unpaid Driver Responsibility Fees owed by 317,048 Michigan drivers
Unpaid fees owed by more than 70,000 Detroit drivers
Average fees owed by Detroit drivers
Source: Crain’s Detroit Business and Bridge Magazine analysis; Michigan Department of Treasury data
“They could be the perfect hire, but they can’t get that driver’s license because they have these fees,” said Pasky, who co-chairs of the Workforce Development Board.
The most common driver responsibility fees stem from a lack of auto insurance — a symptom of the Motor City’s highest-in-the-nation insurance premiums that force an estimated half of all Detroit motorists to drive without insurance.
“Typically, a person can’t afford the insurance, so they’re driving around without the insurance and then they get pulled over and incur these points and more driver responsibility fees,” said Marcus Jones, president of the Detroit Training Center.
Jones said the fees are the “biggest problem we have” when screening applicants to be trained for jobs as commercial truck drivers, heavy equipment operators and other positions requiring a driver's license.
“If you can’t pay your driver responsibility fees, then it’s going to impact your ability to get the job,” Jones said. “It’s huge.”
The city’s Workforce Development Board and Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration are starting to lobby lawmakers to forgive some of the fees, which aren’t scheduled to be fully eliminated until 2019.
Driver responsibility fees also are the target of a federal lawsuit filed in May against Secretary of State Ruth Johnson that contends the fees and suspensions amount to “wealth-based discrimination.”
“Folks are really being trapped in a cycle of poverty,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director at Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group.
In 2003, the Legislature created the Driver Responsibility Fees, and they quickly became a $100 million annual revenue source of revenue in the midst of a state budget crisis.
Drivers were levied new fees ranging from $150 for driving with an expired license and $200 for driving without insurance to $500 for drunken driving and $1,000 for causing injury or death.
The fines were levied for two consecutive years. When they went unpaid, the Secretary of State’s office suspended violators’ licenses. To get a license reinstated, drivers have to pay off the old fees in full, plus an additional $125 “reinstatement fee.”
Lawmakers faced years of backlash from motorists over the fees and in 2012 began a seven-year reduction. Any driver fees assessed before October 2015 are not eligible for reduction.
The ongoing reduced fees remain a sizeable chunk of revenue for the state’s $10 billion general fund.
For the current fiscal year, the state expects to collect $62.5 million, most of which goes to the general fund. As the fees slowly go away, revenue is projected to decline to $43.5 million in the 2018 fiscal year, followed by a drop to $25.5 million in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
“These fees on the books will never go away — they’ll always be there unless the state acts,” said Jeff Donofrio, executive director of workforce development for Duggan.
Duggan and the co-chairs of his workforce development board are proposing lawmakers reinstate a community service option in lieu of payment and at least waive the fees for anyone who goes through a state-approved worker training program.
They’re emphasizing the fees aren’t just a Detroit problem — a hurdle that often has to be cleared in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A Crain’s analysis of state Treasury Department data shows the average unpaid fee for Detroiters is $1,623, while the overall statewide average is $1,876 per driver.
Dan Varner, president of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, said lawmakers should consider some level of fee relief.
“There are a number of folks who are so deep in the hole that getting out is a real challenge,” Varner said.
Each year, Wayne County circuit judges refer 45 to 50 probationers to Goodwill Industries for job-training and placement services. Using money from its retail second-hand stores, Goodwill helps pay off unpaid driver responsibility fees of less than $1,000 for those probationers, Varner said.
But with more than 21,000 Detroiters saddled with unpaid driver fees, helping up to 50 people get back on the road is “a drop in the ocean every year,” Varner said.
Seeking class action status
In May, Equal Justice Under Law and the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit behalf of two Detroit women living in poverty who can’t afford their driving fees.
The plaintiffs are seeking class action status to add thousands of other Michigan drivers whose licenses have been suspended by Johnson through state court orders for unpaid fees, Telfeyan said.
“In Michigan, suspension is the default,” Telfeyan said. “In other states, community service is an alternative.”
State attorneys have sought to beat back the lawsuit, arguing that there’s no violation of constitutional rights in the way the Secretary of State and Michigan traffic courts revoke licenses.
“Those who commit an offense and are in the system, moreover, consume the system’s resources,” Assistant Attorney General John G. Fedynsky wrote in a July 17 court filing.
“Recouping some of those costs is long-standing, reasonable and permitted under the law.”
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is 32-year-old Adrian Fowler, a single mother who lives on Detroit’s west side and works a minimum-wage $8.90-an-hour security guard job in the city.
Fowler said she’s passed on better-paying jobs because of the hours it takes to navigate the city’s bus system to get to work.
“I had to let good jobs go,” she said.
State records filed in court by the Attorney General’s office show Fowler has been stopped by police in Ferndale, Eastpointe and Oak Park over the last four years for making prohibited turns and disobeying stop signs — each time while driving on a suspended license from Georgia.
All three cities have issued bench warrants for Fowler’s arrest for missed court dates and a total of $2,100 in unpaid fees. During one of the stops in Ferndale in 2013, Fowler said she was rushing her infant daughter to a hospital because she had a fever of 103 degrees.
Fowler acknowledges she drove without a license in a vehicle insured by her mother after moving back to Michigan from Georgia in 2012. Her license was suspended in Georgia for similar traffic violations there, according to the state.
Fowler said she just wants a reasonable payment plan, which judges are allowed to grant.
“It’s not like I’m trying to stick my hand out to drop money in my hand and take care of my ticket. I know what I did, and I’m responsible for what I did,” she said. “I’m trying to get things going in the right direction. It’s hard enough being a single parent, trying to juggle these things and what not.”
Telfeyan said low-income residents who owe the fees can never be expected to pay them off when they can’t access better-paying jobs due to their inability to drive to work.
“This is the irrationality of the law — if you want people to repay their debt, you shouldn’t make it harder for them to do so,” Telfeyan said.
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