Michigan, Texas Abuser Fees Face Challenge

Michigan and Texas legislators and attorneys are battling to repeal civil remedial fees.

The furor over Virginia's "civil remedial fees" (more info) has given hope to opponents of similar taxes in Michigan and Texas designed to raise revenue by imposing mandatory fees of between $100 and $7500 for various driving-related offenses.

Earlier this month, a bill to repeal Michigan's so-called driver responsibility fees was referred to the state Senate Transportation Committee. Introduced by state Senator John Gleason (D-Flushing), the bill would simply set a date for ending collection of the tax. Gleason's move reflects a growing realization that hefty fees bring even bigger headaches to the judicial system.

Three sitting district court and one circuit court judge testified before lawmakers about the issue last December. Each suggested that the short-term revenue gain was not worth the long-term damage done. The judges provided several examples of low-income motorists, stopped for the most minor of violations, who later found themselves in a financial trap from which they could not escape.

Under a typical scenario, Michigan's Secretary of State will suspend a driver's license if a single fee or tax is not paid, even if the bill had been mailed to the wrong address. When this happens, a motorist unwittingly driving under a suspended license, if stopped, faces a mandatory $1000 ticket tax on top of a $150 license reinstatement fee. Given the choice of feeding and housing one's family or paying the fine, many opt to pay the rent.

"When you turn law-abiding people into criminals, they lose all respect for the law," Judge Michael Jarreau testified. "I will almost never take a guilty plea for driving with a suspended license."

Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) is resisting efforts to repeal the fees as they have generated $397 million since 2004, of which amount less than $170 million has been collected.

That is why attorney Henry Guikema has taken his challenge to the law all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. Justices are considering Guikema's appeal of a March 22 state appeals court ruling that found the fees legal. Guikema argues that while the state is raising millions in revenue, its methods violate the double jeopardy and equal protection clauses of the state constitution.

In Texas, many of the same problems have appeared, forcing state Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) on July 19 to ask the Senate Transportation Committee to hold public hearings on the issue. Shapleigh documented an explosion in the number of arrest warrants issued against El Paso motorists -- 59,429, or eleven percent of the city. An identical percentage of Austin motorists face arrest as well.

Some of the warrants were issued because of tickets for moving violations, including: 1130 failures to yield; 5382 traffic signal and stop sign violations; and 20,299 speeding tickets. The vast majority, however, were related to paperwork -- 30,387 for various licensing problems and 34,649 for expired insurance.

The Texas ticket tax tacks on an extra $300 in fees for anyone who accumulates 6 license demerit points. Other fees range up to $7500 for a second DUI offense. Not surprisingly, as in Michigan, many Texas motorists would rather accept an arrest warrant than skip out on paying other bills.

Local printer Joe Martinez, for example, was ticketed for driving with expired insurance. Because he was unable to come up with the cash to cover the initial $350 fine, he was thrown in jail. Now that he has paid, he still faces the $750 surcharge, and Martinez does not know where he is going to find that money. He cannot earn money if he cannot drive, and he fears being pulled over in a roadblock where papers are checked.

Again, like Michigan, the net effect for Texas has been a flood of revenue -- but not as much as anticipated. Since 2003, the state has billed drivers $850 million but collected only $275 million from the fees. In addition to Michigan, Texas and Virginia, New Jersey and New York also impose these fees.

Go to Article