Fowler v. Benson

Plaintiffs allege that the Michigan Department of State’s automatic suspension of driver’s license of persons who owe court fines and fees, regardless of their ability to pay violates due process and equal protection. A person with an outstanding court debt for 28 days, receives a notice informing them that failure to pay the debt within 14 days will result in automatic suspension of their license. Before the suspension is lifted, drivers are also required to pay a $45.00 suspension fee which may be multiplied if multiple debts are owed.  Anyone caught driving with a suspended license faces an additional 30-day suspension and a reinstatement fee of $125.


Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, claiming that the suspension of the driver’s licenses of indigent people who are unable to pay fines and fees violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The district court found that the procedural due process claim was likely to proceed on the merits. It concluded that the absence of an “ability to pay” hearing prior to the deprivation of driver’s licenses made Plaintiffs likely to succeed on their procedural due process claim, and therefore, it preliminarily enjoined Michigan’s Secretary of State from enforcing Michigan’s driver’s-license suspension law.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Relying principally on Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972), the court held that the scope of plaintiffs’ property interest in their driver’s license was defined exclusively by state law. Because Michigan law does not provide an exemption from driver’s license suspensions for people who cannot afford to pay court debt, plaintiffs – who lost their licenses only because they could not afford to pay – did not have a protected property interest in their license.  As Plaintiffs failed to claim a legal entitlement protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, there was no reason to balance the interests at stake.

The Sixth Circuit then addressed Plaintiffs’ equal protection claims, agreeing with the district court that these claims were unlikely to succeed on the merits. Plaintiffs claimed that the suspension of their driver’s licenses constituted impermissible wealth discrimination. Citing the distinction between liberty and property interests, the court explained that basic features of the criminal justice system, such as imprisonment, probation, and appeals are afforded a greater degree of legal protection than Plaintiffs’ property interests in their driver’s licenses. The court also noted that equal protection challenges to laws on the grounds of “wealth classification” are only subject to rational basis review, which the Michigan driver’s-license suspension law survived. While the court agreed with Plaintiffs that the policy behind the driver’s-license suspension law is unwise, counterproductive, and perhaps misguided, it found that “Michigan’s choice to wield the cudgel of driver’s-license suspension for nonpayment of court debt dramatically heightens the incentive to pay” was rationally related to its interest in the prompt collection of civil penalties, thus rendering it constitutional.

The Sixth Circuit also analyzed Plaintiffs’ claim that the driver’s-license suspension law violated their rights against extraordinary debt collection. Plaintiffs averred that because their licenses were suspended due to their court debt, while people with unpaid private debt did not face driver’s license suspensions, the Equal Protection Clause was violated. The Court held that Supreme Court precedent does not require “exact parity” between State and private creditors. In any event, the court had already found that the Michigan law was rationally related to a legitimate government interest and thus passed constitutional muster.

On December 3, 2019, the Sixth Circuit denied Plaintiffs’ petition for a rehearing en banc.


Judge Donald found that “Michigan’s license-suspension scheme imposes a harsher sanction on indigent drivers than their non-indigent peers.” In light of the “great degree of deprivation at stake,” he concluded that “Michigan’s failure to inquire into a driver’s ability to pay and afford alternatives violates due process and equal protection.”

Procedural Due Process

Judge Donald recognized that Plaintiffs have an “uncontroverted property interest in the continued possession of their driver’s licenses.” He critiqued the majority’s analysis for ignoring “Supreme Court precedent that squarely recognizes a protected property interest in the continued possession of a driver’s license” and for proceeding “as if Plaintiffs must establish a more specific property interest.” Relatedly, he critiqued the majority’s analysis for relying “solely on Michigan’s deprivation procedures to define the extent of Plaintiffs’ property interests.” (citing Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 541 (1985).) Judge Donald believed that the majority misapprehended Bd. of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972), explaining that in cases subsequent to Roth the Supreme Court “has held steadfast to the principle that the nature of the property interest at stake is ingrained in the rules or regulations that confer the underlying property interest, not in the state’s deprivation procedures.” (citing Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 568–69 (1975).)

Equal Protection

Although Judge Donald would not have reached the equal protection issue, he wrote to express his disagreement with the majority’s analysis. He opined that the principles set forth in Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956) are implicated “when a state deprives a person of an essential source of livelihood, ‘solely because [they are] indigent and cannot immediately pay the fine in full.’” (quoting Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 664 (1983).) Moreover, he concluded that Michigan’s license-suspension scheme “difficult to rationalize” and that “the high interests at stake warrant that Michigan ‘inquire into the reasons for [Plaintiffs’] failure to pay’ and ‘consider alterna[tives]’ to payment in full before it imposes an automatic suspension of licenses.” (quoting Bearden, 461 U.S. at 673.)

You can find a detailed summary and case documents via the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse and the Equal Justice Under Law site. You can also read more about one of the plaintiffs, Kitia Harris. 

42 USC § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
4:17-cv-11441 (E.D. Mich.)
May 2017
Equal Justice Under Law and Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center