Public Defender Questions East Lansing’s Prosecution Practices; City Attorney Disagrees

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Monday, January 20, 2020, 7:30 am
Chris Gray

Clockwise from left: Brian Jackson, Aaron Stephens, and Tom Yeadon (photos by Raymond Holt).

A local public defender opened a debate with East Lansing’s City Attorney at City Council’s most recent meeting, characterizing some of the City’s fines for minor traffic arrests as unnecessarily punitive, saying the approach being taken may harm the ability of poorer people to get back up on their feet.

The City Attorney disagreed, saying a $500 fine for driving with a suspended license may seem like a lot, but it is not.

At last week’s Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens brought to Council the issue of East Lansing’s plea bargain policy amid a national discussion of how criminal justice systems may treat people unequally and in counterproductive fashions.

Stephens (above) has said he wanted to start the discussion of East Lansing’s plea bargain policy by talking specifically about how City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s office handles the offense “Driving with License Suspended” (DWLS). According to the City’s website, Yeadon’s office both advises Council and “prosecutes violations of all City ordinances and codes brought before the 54B District Court.”

In Michigan, a person can have a license suspended for something as minor as failing to pay three parking tickets. And in East Lansing, getting caught driving with a suspended license can mean a $500 fine.

Movement toward statewide reform, including around DWLS offenses:

As reported in Bridge magazine, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a bipartisan legislative coalition has made criminal justice reform a top priority in Michigan, seeking common ground despite deep partisan differences on other issues.

As part of that movement, according to the Detroit Free Press, a statewide task force given the job of making recommendations about jail and pretrial incarceration has targeted the high number of arrests for DWLS as one top area for reform, with the recommendation that license suspension be only a possible punishment for serious traffic crimes. Those would include such offenses as driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

As it is, people facing a DWLS charge merely for failure to pay relatively minor tickets can find themselves facing steep penalties, including jail time, causing their financial and personal situations to spiral down.

East Lansing could be a driver of that problem:

Ingham County Public defender Brian T. Jackson (below) told Council last week that East Lansing is known to aggressively screen license plates and target motorists for DWLS and then hit them with a $500 civil fine.

“In East Lansing, they run a lot of plates and look for license suspensions,” said Jackson, who defends people charged in 54B District Court.

Jackson explained that licenses can often get suspended without a motorist even knowing, often for unpaid traffic tickets.

Unlike in neighboring jurisdictions, Jackson said that in East Lansing, even after someone clears up their late fees, he is rarely able to get them out of court unless his clients pay an additional $500 fine.

“I end up telling them East Lansing wants their money.”

He said the steady stream of fines and arrests and license suspensions can prevent people from holding jobs, setting up a vicious cycle where the chances of them having to appear before the court again only increase.

Jackson, who also serves as a member of the Lansing City Council, told ELi after the public discussion that other jurisdictions are less punitive than East Lansing. If someone clears the tickets that led to a suspended license arrest in Lansing, he said, the charges are often dismissed completely, or reduced down to a civil violation with a fine of $100 to $150.

East Lansing’s City Attorney sees it differently:

Contrary to Jackson’s take, East Lansing City Attorney Tom Yeadon told Council last week that the City of East Lansing is more accommodating than it was years ago, and that offering the $500 civil fine helps offenders avoid an additional suspension from the Michigan Secretary of State and avoid points against their driving records.

“It seems like a high price, but it isn’t,” Yeadon (below) said.

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

In addition to people who are unaware their licenses were even suspended, Jackson described some people facing arrest as having risked a DWLS charge in order to get to work or to take care of a medical issue.

But Yeadon pushed back on this characterization: “There’s the people who can’t pay the fines, and there’s those who don’t prioritize paying their tickets.”

He suggested that many people with suspended licenses drive all the time aware of their suspension, coming before the court when they get caught.

Council members react:

During the discussion of the matter, Council Member Mark Meadows largely sided with Jackson, asking Yeadon to consider dropping charges when people pay their old tickets and fines, or reduce the civil violation to closer to $100.

“We want to keep people lawfully on the road and not put artificial barriers up,” Meadows said.

Hearing from Jackson about the problem, Council Member Jessy Gregg opined, “It’s an example of how expensive it is to be poor.”

Council Member Lisa Babcock said there were certain times that suspending a license was the only way to get some people to take their obligations seriously – such as when a person fails to pay court-ordered child support.

But, she said, the point in such cases was to get them to pay their child support, not put them in a downward financial spiral.

Stephens has indicated he wants to make criminal justice reform at the local level a priority. He suggested he was open to limiting fine reduction to cases that are related to relatively minor infractions.

He also wants to see a system whereby if someone is charged with DWLS for failure to pay prior fines, and they pay those fines, the additional DWLS fine is lowered or dropped altogether.

Last week’s meeting was a “discussion-only” non-voting meeting of Council, so any Council-level decisions about this would have to occur at a later meeting. ELi will continue to follow this story. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info