City Attorney Yeadon (Grudgingly) Outlines Lower Fines for Some Traffic Offenses

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Friday, February 21, 2020, 8:15 am
By: 
Chris Gray

“We only want to do whatever Council wants us to do,” East Lansing City Attorney Tom Yeadon said earlier this week, after agreeing to lower the fines for driving with a suspended license or without a valid license. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

East Lansing City Attorney Tom Yeadon revealed plans on Tuesday to lower the penalties for some traffic violations, bringing the fines more in line with other Ingham County jurisdictions.

Under the new prosecutorial policies, East Lansing likely will have the stiffest fines in Ingham County, but instead of a flat $500 fine for anyone caught driving without a valid license or with a suspended license, fines generally will be reduced to between $215 and $325.

For people with little history of traffic violations, if they get their license restored, East Lansing will drop fines for “driving while license suspended” down to $40, the amount the State charges for court costs.

Driving without a license — a violation sometimes committed by unauthorized immigrants who cannot obtain a Michigan license — will be reduced to a civil infraction instead of standing as a misdemeanor criminal offense, and motorists will be charged $325.

The City has typically been issuing $500 fines on anyone convicted of driving with a suspended license or without a license, regardless of whether motorists successfully took steps to restore their driver’s licenses.

Last month, Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens criticized the penalties as targeting the poor and noted that they are out of line with other local jurisdictions, which often waive the fines if motorists clear their license suspension.

Driver’s licenses can become suspended because of non-driving offenses like unpaid traffic tickets, and the added sanction from East Lansing can cause debt to snowball.

“Our fines are too high. Our penalties are too severe. We were putting people in bad financial situations into further financial distress,” Stephens told East Lansing Info after the meeting. “I wanted to go further and lower the fines to the same level as Ingham County, but this is a significant improvement. We’re chipping away at the bigger issue.”

A bipartisan State task force, appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has been trying to reduce incarceration rates, and traffic offenses such as “driving while license suspended” has been a key area targeted for reduced punishment. But for East Lansing, this charge has still been something prosecutors approach with serious fines.

As a case in point, Lansing resident Michelle Washburn (below) testified that she had been arrested for driving with an expired permit, and received a $500 fine.

“That’s my rent,” said Washburn, the mother of a special-needs child. “I expect a consequence. I broke the law. But there’s got to be a leeway.”

In January, Ingham County Public Defender Brian T. Jackson, who also serves on the Lansing City Council, complained to East Lansing’s Council that his clients, many of them indigent, faced steep fines if they were arrested in East Lansing — levels of fines they would not face anywhere else in the county.

“The trend in other places is not to treat them as serious offenses,” Jackson said.

The public defender has also argued that East Lansing has a reputation for aggressively targeting motorists with suspended licenses and charging them the higher fines.

Public defender Brian T. Jackson told Council that East Lansing's fines are higher than many other jurisdictions in Ingham County.

Yeadon pushed back on criticism that his prosecution of these offenses had been overly harsh, and said the $500 fine was small compared to other fines handed down by the State or in more conservative parts of Michigan.

“Driving with a suspended license is looked at as a serious offense,” Yeadon said in January. “We don’t think that a $500 fine for that is onerous.”

But bending to pressure from the Council, Yeadon agreed this week to make changes.

“We only want to do whatever Council wants us to do,” he said.

The changes come at the informal direction of Council, but without a vote from Council that would bind City prosecutors or eliminate case-by-case discretion.

Yeadon prefers stiffer fine schedule

Still, Yeadon continued to try to chart a middle path between the policies of Ingham County and the old policy, setting the fines for driving while license suspended cases above other Ingham County levels.

Yeadon wanted to keep charges of at least $155 to anyone arrested for driving with a suspended license, even as Ingham County sometimes waives these fines entirely for people who get their licenses restored. He argued that the City could face legal liability if they dropped all charges, because it might give a defendant the chance to argue that a police stop was done without probable cause.

But Council Member Mark Meadows questioned Yeadon’s logic. “Why can’t we have a judgment with no fine?” he inquired.

After this discussion with Council, Yeadon agreed to drop all fines from the City, and just pass on the $40 the State charges for prosecution, if the defendant cleared up the underlying issue that had caused the license suspension.

Yeadon also initially balked at changing “driving without a license” from a misdemeanor offense to a civil infraction — treating it as Ingham County does — but the Council, particularly Jessy Gregg, was insistent on this change in order to protect immigrants who are undocumented and who cannot get a license but sometimes still must drive to work.

A criminal conviction, as opposed to a civil infraction, may be more likely to trigger the attention of immigration officers.

“I would choose to err on being more fair to our more vulnerable citizens,” Gregg said.

 

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