Kentwood Court celebrates removal of added burden on drivers with traffic violations


legal news PHOTO by CYNTHIA price

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Judge William Kelly of the 62-B District Court in Kentwood has long been an outspoken opponent of the driver responsibility fees taken by the state over and above whatever fees the local traffic jurisdictions assess for infractions.

In former State Representative Joe Haveman, Judge Kelly found a like-minded legislator.

Referring to the fee structure as intended to fill a hole in state revenues, Haveman said he feels that there was no public safety intent in the 2003 legislation despite supporters’ claims.

For his part, Judge Kelly regarded it as a fairness issue, when he saw so many struggling under the debt owed to the over and above whatever fines they had already paid. He said there were people who came before him who, having first been assessed fees they could not afford, got caught for later traffic infractions and were given additional driver responsibility fees, a cycle some just could not escape.

“The driver responsibility fee is a tax on the people of Michigan who can least afford it and it is subverting the traffic justice system to raise revenue,” Judge” Kelly said in a statement. “”Revenue may be a by-product of the traffic justice system, but revenue is not the purpose of the traffic justice system.”

Haveman, who in 2014 was the Chair of Appropriations in the Michigan House, acknowledged that the loss of revenues was worrisome. In particular, money from the fees went to the fire protection fund, which was set up to supply grants to municipalities for fire services, but Haveman felt that these funds could be replaced by other, fairer fees.

And, as others pointed out, because the population subject to the fees tended to be struggling to get by, there was only a little more than 50 per cent collection rate on the fees.

So, Rep. Haveman, who is now the Director of Government Relations for Hope Network, introduced a bill to gradually reduce the fees. He did not have to wait long to find out how universally disliked the fees were, since 107 of his 110 House colleagues agreed to co-sponsor.

The governor signed the bills in June 2014 and they became Public Act No. 250, effective Sept. 23, 2014.

“But people thought rather than abolishing them, we should phase it out over a period of time,” Judge Kelly commented at a celebratory get-together Oct. 3 at the Kentwood courthouse. Approximately ten people, including attorneys who deal with clients subject to the fee, and a law student, attended, treated to a cake that said “Celebrate” above scissors cutting into a large dollar sign.

Therefore, for individuals who accumulate seven or more points on their drivers’ licenses, the fee decreased to 75 percent of the previous rate on Oct. 1, 2015, and 50 percent a few days before the celebration for infractions during the fiscal years that start with those dates.

In Oct. 2018, they are reduced to 25 percent, and they will disappear totally on Oct. 1, 2019.

As many who were surprised to receive the driver responsibility fee letters from the state could testify, the fee was spread out over two years.

But as of this year, 100 percent of the fee will be assessed in the first year, with no fee at all in the second year, and next year the same, except the fee will be 50% of what it would have been.

At the Kentwood celebration, Haveman said that when he circulated the memo asking for co-sponsors, one of the legislators who had been there when the fees were enacted in 2003 called it “the dumbest thing we ever did.”

Haveman was given a Legislator of the Year Award from the Michigan Municipal League in 2010, and a Heartwell Environmental Legacy Award from West Michigan Environmental Action Council for his work on an energy bill, but he was to be disappointed by his attempts to reform the criminal justice system, his greatest passion. Motivated by both compassion for prisoners and the desire to curb spending which led him to seek office, at the end of his six-year career he succeeded in passing only one of his ideas, the Criminal Justice Policy Commission.

About the driver responsibility fee reduction, Haveman commented in a released statement, “Too often these fees only perpetuated the cycle of poverty on thousands on Michigan citizens. I'm sorry that we were only able to pass a five-year
phase out. In 2019 citizens will be completely free of this ridiculous money grab.”