Report: SE Michigan govts. commit ‘highway robbery’ against Detroit drivers

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Attorney Geoffrey Leonard recalls meeting with two African-American Detroit clients who had been ticketed for running through an Allen Park stop sign, which was obstructed by a tree.

Same intersection. Different day. Different motorists.    

Geoffrey Leonard | Detroit Justice Center photo

“The cops clearly had a practice of waiting there to pull over drivers,” Leonard, a nonprofit Detroit Justice Center (DJC) staff attorney, said on Tuesday.  

About 70% of working Detroiters travel outside of the city for work and just 7% of them use public transportation routinely, given extensive barriers, according to a DJC report released last week. Co-authored by Leonard, Jade Chowning and Erin Keith, the report called, “Highway Robbery: How Metro Detroit Cops & Courts Steer Segregation and Drive Incarceration,” details the historical and contemporary ways in which this drives segregation and incarceration.

“This creates a perverse incentive for judges, who are simultaneously tasked with determining a person’s guilt or innocence while also ensuring they find enough people guilty to pay for their court’s operations,” the report reads. 

In fall 2019, DJC, a firm that works to create economic opportunities and fight for social justice for some of the city’s poorest residents, began to study the issue. Attorneys found that for many low-income metro Detroit residents, the all-too-common reality was that a single ticket becomes “an ever-growing web of unpayable fines, suspended licenses, warrants, and the constant threat of incarceration — a potentially life-altering ticket to jail.”

“Highway Robbery” report | Detroit Justice Center photo

These conditions are part of a recipe for “wealth extraction” and incarceration, DJC officials said. Furthermore, Leonard contended, that district courts extract huge sums of money from poor, Black drivers. Those proceeds help to fund local government.

Leonard said that the state Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should address the issues in traffic-related fines and fees.

“The state could fix the huge amount of this, if not all, right, so that they could repeal and decriminalize almost all of these things that criminalized the driving poor,” Leonard said. “The state is the entity that has passed laws allowing and requiring disabilities to collect the huge amount of money to state profits eventually.”

Leonard added that for marginalized people, a “major barrier for their employment or a major risk for them getting locked up or, in some way, ending up in the criminal legal system, is that they have a suspended driver’s license. So they get referred to us as lawyers to represent them in traffic court.”

Michigan drivers to get break on license suspension fees ‘to stop penalizing poverty’

Meanwhile, at least one government-related development regarding the issue has occurred. After a lawsuit was brought against former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson in 2017, the state recently settled Fowler v. Johnson. Johnson was term-limited in 2018 and is now a GOP state senator. Democrat Jocelyn Benson was elected secretary of state that year.

Plaintiffs Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris, both African-American Detroit residents, were initially cited for minor traffic infractions. Both suffered license suspensions because they were unable to pay their traffic tickets. Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law and Detroit’s Sugar Law Center, both nonprofit agencies that assist the poor, accused the Republican-led government agency of “running a wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.” 

The settlement calls for the Michigan Department of State to inform people who receive traffic tickets and other citations that they can request a low-or no-cost alternative if they can’t afford fines and fees.

Dana Nessel, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“It is time to re-evaluate laws that effectively criminalize being poor,” said Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who was elected in 2018.

But Leonard believes that more should be done. DJC offers 13 recommendations in the report. It suggests eliminating misdemeanors that “criminalize driving while poor;” expunge all existing misdemeanors convictions for traffic offenses; and repeal civil infractions “that are unnecessary or that penalize driving while poor.” It also calls for local government to stop “profit-seeking” traffic enforcement; stop the “traffic enforcement-to-jail-pipeline;” make transit safe and accessible for everyone; and end driver’s license suspensions.

“This system of modern-day segregation will continue to trap marginalized drivers in debt, fund suburban communities off of the region’s poorest residents, and send people to jail for victimless traffic offenses,” the report concluded. 

“It is our hope that by examining the historical and legal context that created this vicious cycle, bringing light to experiences of people who have been directly impacted, and putting forward recommendations for change, we can empower our community members, lawmakers, and fellow advocates to construct a clear road ahead — a reality free from the detours and dead ends of driving while poor.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.