It’s time to end state driver responsibility fee money grab

We can all debate what the role of state government should be, but one thing it definitely shouldn’t be doing is imposing criminal penalties just to raise revenue.

That’s what Michigan has been doing since 2003, when it instituted “driver responsibility fees” – state penalties for certain driving offenses that are piled on top of the fines imposed by local courts.

The fees weren’t established for law enforcement purposes, but to raise revenue for the state treasury – a simple “money grab” in the words of state Rep. Joe Haveman, R-1Holland.

The fees might not fit the legal definition of “double jeopardy” (being tried twice on the same charge) but they definitely constitute double punishment, and Michigan is long past due in getting rid of them. We support HGB 5414, a bill sponsored by Haveman, to eliminate the fees.

Driver responsibility fees are charged when a driver accumulates seven or more points on his or her record or commits one of several dozen significant driving offenses, and can range from $150 to $1,000 a year for two years. Not surprisingly, the weight of the fees falls most heavily on the poor, many of whom keep falling farther and farther behind in an onerous spiral of mounting charges; unable to pay the penalties, including the “license reinstatement” fee, they often decide to drive outside the system with neither license nor insurance.

An estimated half billion dollars in driver responsibility fees have never been collected.

We editorialized against driver responsibility fees in 2010, and it appeared then that the Legislature was ready to scrap them. That didn’t happen. The fees for driving with an expired license or without proof of insurance were eliminated in 2012, but the system remains in place.

We don’t mean to condone or trivialize the unsafe driving that triggers the fees. With the exception of racking up too many points, the offenses associated with the fees are extremely serious and potentially deadly, such a reckless and drunken driving.

Those offenses deserve serious punishment, but if the extra state fees make the financial cost too much for drivers to meet, what good are they? Establishing fines that thousands of people cannot pay only encourages evasion of the law.

As it is now, driver responsibility fees don’t deter bad driving, they just kick people when they’re already down. We wouldn’t condone a town setting up a speed trap on the highway to cover its budget deficit.

Neither should we continue a system that punishes people twice just to get a few more dollars for the state treasury.