Too Broke to Drive

Henry Graber in Slate:

CarThe first time Shane Moon lost his driver’s license was in 2013, when his girlfriend was pregnant with his first child. Moon, a construction worker in Lapeer, Michigan, near Flint, was having trouble making ends meet and had let his car insurance lapse. “I don’t make a whole lot of money,” Moon said. “It’s the only thing I could possibly get away with not paying.” He got a ticket for driving without insurance and a special Michigan penalty called a “driver responsibility fee,” which can cost violators up to $1,000 over two years. He couldn’t afford to pay that either and missed his court appearance. His license was suspended, bringing on an additional reinstatement fee. But he had to keep driving to get to construction jobs, often 90 miles from home. Each time he was pulled over—often for his outdated tags—the state hit him with another ticket for hundreds of dollars. Four years later, Moon is homeless and struggling to keep up with tickets that have him paying as much as a third of his income to local and state governments each year for fines and fees alone. “My ship has sank. I don’t know how I’ll make it out of it this time. I feel like a total loser failing my family,” he told me. “If I can’t pay my tickets, shame on me, but don’t take my license away from me. Don’t take my standard of living away from me.” He continues to drive to work every day, without insurance or a license.

Moon is one of tens of thousands of Michiganders who have been trapped in a cycle of debt and criminality stemming from a suspended driver’s license and the accompanying series of fines that begin with the state’s driver responsibility fee. The penalty was first proposed in 2003, by Michigan state Sen. Jud Gilbert, who sponsored a bill to create an automatic fine tacked onto vehicular offenses both mundane ($100 for hitting seven points on a license) and serious ($1,000 for murder). The state was in a financial crisis, but as the fee’s name implied, Gilbert thought the new penalties—suggested to him by the majority leader at the time—would improve driver safety. They were portrayed that way in the press, too: The Detroit Free Press’ driving columnist called the fee an “immaturity penalty.” In 2014, the Republican-controlled statehouse voted by an overwhelming majority to abolish the policy, in recognition that the fee had simply been a “money grab,” in the words of Joe Haveman, the representative who sponsored the repeal.

More here.