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I spend the majority of my time as a criminal defense attorney in a number of district courts in Oakland County. And what I see would really surprise you.
It isn't violent crime, it isn't aberrant behavior, it isn't junior misdemeanor criminals earning their stripes waiting to be tapped for the Circuit Court Felony Big Leagues.
It's driving while license suspended -- really.
Truly 40%-50% of the dockets I work are filled with people charged with DWLS.
They are suspended for reasons stretching from unsatisfactory driving record (too many points, an excellent reason to suspend their privileges) to drunken driving convictions (no argument needed).
These, however, are not the people about whom I am concerned.
The folks I see are cited because they neglected to pay a ticket, and were suspended.
The folks I see are cited because they neglected to show up in court, and were suspended.
The reasons for these scofflaws' non-appearance? They have no money. They are unemployed, poor, broke, foreclosed.
But the real crime most are guilty of is failure to pay the state's draconian driver responsibility fee. This is charged above any fines and costs assessed by the court.
This fee comes from the Department of Treasury -- failure to pay, or failure to keep up with a pre-approved payment plan-for any reason, and Treasury notifies the Secretary of State and your license is suspended. Notice to you? No! That's right, NO! And this fee does not protect us from anything. These are typically not bad drivers.
Here's how it works: You're stopped because your plate is expired, or you have a cracked windshield, loud muffler, headlight/taillight out, speeding, tinted windows -- and at the scene the police officer notifies you that your driver's license is suspended. And you are arrested!
You probably had no idea you were suspended. You don't have too many points, and you are not a recovering drunken driver. You did not cause an accident and failed to pay damages. No -- it's for failure to pay driver responsibility fees.
So you plead guilty to DWLS and the penalty? Stiff fines, jail, and the Secretary of State steps in and assesses a like suspension. So if your license was suspended (unknown to you) for a year, the SOS suspends you for another year.
And here's the icing on the cake: more driver responsibility fees. In this case, $500 per year for the next two years! This plus the $750 typically charged for the plea in court. And you can't get a license for two years.
I think it's time the Michigan Legislature seriously considers some type of moratorium on this driver responsibility fee nonsense. People in Michigan, as I have said before, must drive to survive. I have clients who must drive great distances -- 10, 20 or 30 miles -- just to get to a low-wage job. No license? Gotta work. Drive without the license ... get stopped ... repeat.
I'm ready to discuss a plan with any legislator who is interested in breaking up the bureaucratic logjam of DWLS/driver responsibility fee and getting working Michiganders legally back on the road.
Alan Reiner is a defense lawyer in Rochester and a former Oakland County assistant prosecuting attorney.
For the full article, see Alan Reiner, "Rules on suspended licenses add up to injustice for many", Detroit Free Press, July 8, 2008.
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