Because of the importance of driver’s licenses to formerly incarcerated people, amici write to clarify the Bearden/Griffin claim rejected by the panel majority. This claim is rooted in the Supreme Court’s commitment to “equal justice for poor and rich” in the criminal system.

Introduction

The panel’s majority opinion legitimates the punishment of poverty, contrary to the Supreme Court’s Bearden/Griffin line of cases and the Fourteenth Amendment. Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983); Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956). More than half a million people return home from prison every year, many of whom discover that they cannot drive because they owe court debt. The story of P.W., a member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (“National Council”), shows how driver’s license suspensions trap people in a cycle of poverty.1 

P.W. had no family support when she began ten years of probation after serving her prison sentence. Her driver’s license was suspended the first time when she did not respond in a timely way to a summons for a speeding ticket she had received more than a decade earlier, before her incarceration. She was not caught while continuing to drive to her job from the remote area where she could afford to rent a room. She was therefore able to collect enough money to pay the fine. 

P.W. was stopped five years later for a moving violation, which was eventually dismissed. Her license was suspended while the case was pending. When she honored the suspension and told her court-ordered therapist she would not be able to get to her sessions, the therapist informed her probation officer. Federal Marshals arrested her at her workplace, where she was executive director of a social services agency. P.W. lost her job and was not able to work in a professional capacity for a decade. She had to declare bankruptcy and now will never be able to pay her court debt. Her two license suspensions forced her either to break the law or try to abide by the rules and still lose everything. Suspending the driver’s license of someone who cannot pay a fine has devastating consequences; it prevents the state from receiving payment and can destroy the livelihood of the indigent driver. 

Because of the importance of driver’s licenses to formerly incarcerated people, amici write to clarify the Bearden/Griffin claim rejected by the panel majority. This claim is rooted in the Supreme Court’s commitment to “equal justice for poor and rich” in the criminal system. Griffin, 351 U.S. at 16. It involves both due process and equal protection, which together flatly prohibit punishing a person who cannot pay a monetary sanction “solely because of his lack of financial resources,” without considering alternative means of effecting the state’s purposes. Bearden, 461 U.S. at 660, 669, 672. Despite binding Supreme Court precedent, the panel majority erroneously decided that this claim did not apply to deprivation of property interests and applied traditional equal protection analysis. ECF #39-2 in No. 17-2504 (“Panel Op.”) at 13-15 & n.8. Properly understood, however, the Bearden/Griffin line of cases requires striking down Michigan’s suspension of driver’s licenses for those unable to pay their fines and fees. 

Read the full amicus brief

  • 1. Interview with P.W. by Catherine Sevcenko, counsel for amicus National Council (notes available from amici should the Court wish to see them).