OCBA UPDATE: The car is king


After 215,000 miles, my car recently required some rather extensive engine repairs that left me without transportation for several weeks. I took the opportunity to engage in a bit of a social experiment to see whether I could survive as an attorney without the ability to drive a car. For several weeks, I Ubered,1 I bummed rides2 and I (occasionally) asked my wife3 to Uber so I could take her car. The resounding answer from my experiment was that it would have been impossible to work had I not had the resources to pay for rides, friends who offered to drive me, and a pregnant wife willing to take a couple Ubers for the team. My answer begets a larger question: the fate of those in our community without the ability to drive a car and what to do about it.

Civil infractions account for a large number of the citations issued by police officers, and issuing tickets is an enormous revenue generator. In 2014, 1.3 million new civil infraction filings were reported to the State Court Administrative Office. While the House Fiscal Agency “conservatively estimate[d]” the revenue generated to be $120-$150 million, even if every ticket were pled down to one count of impeding traffic (which doesn’t always happen despite my best efforts), I project revenue at $227.5 million.

For most of us, getting a traffic ticket is a matter of either paying the ticket or seeking some lenience from a prosecuting attorney via a plea agreement. But no matter the outcome, most of us can and do pay the fine and costs associated with the violation. For those who cannot pay or who are defaulted by the court for inaction, the Michigan secretary of state suspends that person’s ability to drive. If the person continues to drive and gets stopped again, they face the charge of driving while license suspended. The result of a driving-while-suspended conviction is (beyond the fines and costs) a mandatory extension of the license suspension. Given the demonstrated need to drive in metro Detroit, in many cases this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle for the indigent.4 Indeed, one recently filed federal class action lawsuit went so far as to call the state’s system a “... wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.”5

 I hear those who might say, “But we have public transportation.” The purpose of this article is not to criticize the quality of metro Detroit’s existing public transportation system. But most people I know realize it needs to be better funded and fixed. Suffice to say I could not make the existing system work for me during my experiment, so I am not able to comment on it further. In the absence of solid public transportation, ours is a community where an automobile is needed to cover the distances to and from work. In ignoring the suspension cycle, we ignore the plight of those whose lives would be immeasurably changed by something we take for granted: a commute to work.6

We can debate the causal origins of the suspension cycle that the Detroit Free Press suggests afflicts more than 100,000 drivers in Michigan.7 One could say “those drivers” should just obey the traffic laws, show up in court when summoned and pay their fines on time, or just stop driving a car. However, I propose that we are past that point; therefore a discussion of who obeys the traffic laws is a non-starter.8 Rather, the issue before us now is whether we can help indigent citizens caught in the cycle of suspension. I submit that we can help and should help.

Judges can and do assist people who truly want to work on clearing up the problem. Judge Derek Meinecke of the 44th District Court in Royal Oak has patiently worked with defendants over the past several years, allowing them to go to other courts and work through their issues. Other district courts are investigating pilot programs with similar intentions. There is a way we can do our part to help.

Even with the patience exhibited by judges, the court system can be a daunting and frightening specter for those caught in a suspension cycle. For some, it is difficult to figure a way out, while others shirk their responsibility to do it. I have seen defendants in district court unable to articulate to a judge any real knowledge of the extent of his/her issues in other courts (sometimes truthfully, and sometimes not so truthfully). The client’s inability to understand can be a function of trying to do it themselves or of not having a lawyer who has full knowledge of the overall situation.9 The lack of an advocate to guide them through the process prevents the creation of a comprehensive and workable plan for what usually requires repayment to multiple courts. Keep in mind, the traffic courts are not empowered to amend or address the driving history of a person, other than to advise the secretary of state electronically that a person has appeared or paid an outstanding fine. Actual modifications to someone’s driving record requires interface directly with Michigan’s secretary of state or attorney general.

The key element that our bar association can consider to solve this problem is volunteering as pro bono counsel to help these individuals craft a way to resolve their outstanding cases, vacate the suspensions and regain their licensure. To that end, a pro bono lawyer could go to all of the affected courts with the client. It would make a tremendous difference for a person to have one lawyer with whom to consult, create a strategic plan, and go before all of the judges with a consistent message and knowledge base to create judicial confidence.10

The irony of this article is that the autonomous vehicles of the future will likely someday make this issue moot. Autonomous cars won’t speed or disobey a traffic control device and if one does, presumably it’s the car, not the occupant, at fault.11 But in the interim, it seems to me to be a laudable thing to help those in need of counsel and representation in this area. Courts will collect more outstanding fines and more people will be legally mobile to travel in a region where the car is king. 



1 Thanks to the Uber drivers who showed up on time. The two who cancelled should be ashamed.

2 Thank you, Jose Fanego.

3 Rose thankfully didn’t call a divorce lawyer when I said I needed the car to get to Lapeer.

4 There are several ways to lose the ability to drive in our community: license suspensions for failure to pay judgments or appear at court, insurance premiums higher than the ability to pay and, in some instances, unsafe driving records or substance abuse-based criminal convictions. 

5 Fowler v. Johnson, Case No. 17-11441 (ED Mich May 4, 2017).

6 On only one occasion did I walk, and I lamented the hike from the 48th District Court to my home after court. That is, until I recalled the man who walked 21 miles to work each day. http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/oakland/2015/01/31/detroit-commuting-troy-rochester-hills-smart-ddot-ubs-banker-woodward-buses-transit/22660785/.


8 While law enforcement may question me, let’s admit the two truths of traffic tickets: 1) sooner or later, everyone gets one, and 2) traffic offense fines and costs generate a large amount of income for municipalities and other branches of government. 

9 Traditionally, indigent defendants are provided with appointed counsel by the court. In practice at the district court level, this translates to a different attorney in each court (and the attorney in each court sometimes changes daily).

10 Some courts may even consider amnesty or financial consideration (and others, candidly, may not). 

11 Indeed, I remain curious as to whether one will even need a license to be driven by them.


Gerald J. Gleeson II, of Miller, Canfield, Paddock, & Stone PLC, is the 85th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.