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Standing on the Backs of the Poor

Kitia Harris is a single mother raising her eight-year-old daughter in Detroit. Recently, she picked up a minor traffic ticket for “impeding traffic” totaling $276 in court fines and fees. Living off just $1,200 a month in disability payments—not enough to cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other basic needs—she was unable to pay her traffic fines.

Because she cannot afford her outstanding court debt, Michigan suspended her license.

Kitia has never committed a crime, and for many years she worked hard in low-wage jobs to support herself and her daughter. In 2014, she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure that prevents her from working.

Without a driver’s license, everything is more expensive. Kitia’s disability requires regular medical treatments. Now, instead of driving herself to her appointments, she must pay others to drive her. And because Detroit has the worst public transportation system of any major city in the country, she must also pay for rides for daily tasks like grocery shopping, or picking up her daughter. By forcing her to pay more just to get around, Michigan has trapped her in a cycle of poverty.

This is not fair, and it’s not justice.

Like Kitia, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are poor. In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt or failure to appear.

These residents have not been judged too dangerous to drive; they are not a threat behind the wheel; they have not caused serious injuries while driving. In the vast majority of cases, their only “crime” is that they are too poor to pay.

Michigan’s model creates two different justice systems based on wealth status. For the rich, a minor infraction (like changing lanes without a turn signal) would result in a fine of maybe $135. For those who are poor and unable to pay, the same infraction could eventually lead to a license suspension. This suspension scheme violates our commonly held standards of justice: States should not dole out punishment simply based on wealth status.

But perhaps more importantly: Michigan’s scheme is terrible public policy.

These suspensions laws are trapping productive residents in a cycle of poverty. It’s crushing for Kitia and her daughter, and it is especially bad for Michigan. As a state famous for its poorly managed fiscal situation, Michigan should help its residents pay back their court debt. Instead, the state is making it much harder for them to do so.

On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for this wealth-based suspension scheme. Our lawsuit seeks to return licenses to the hundreds of thousands of drivers who have had their licenses suspended solely for the inability to pay court debt, and it asks the state to cease poverty-based suspensions in the future. We are not asking Michigan to change the way it treats drivers who are truly a threat on the road. Nothing we’re asking would allow a driver to commit reckless driving offenses.

We’re only asking that the state stop punishing people for being poor.

We are also asking that Michigan consider alternatives that many other states successfully employ. There should be an ability-to-pay hearing before any license is suspended. If someone is unable to pay due to poverty status, they should be given alternatives, like community service or payment plans. Some states offer payment plans as low as $5 per month.

Some supporters of Michigan’s suspension law claim that those who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets should drive more carefully. But this argument is exactly the kind of unequal justice we must fight against. Our justice system should not be premised on the notion that the rich get to buy their way out of trouble while the poor live under a sword of Damocles for not using a turn signal.

Others say that it’s unfair for poor people to get out of fines just because they’re unable to pay. What I ask of those folks is empathy. For many people—including Kitia Harris—poverty is not a choice. Kitia was raised without a mother or father, spending the majority of her childhood in foster care.

Now 25, she has never had a reliable, supportive adult in her life. She has lived her life in poverty. Calling it “unfair” that Kitia keep her driver’s license even though she cannot pay her court debt misses the fact that Kitia is doing everything in her power to make ends meet.

If she could pay her court debt, she would.

Instead of punishing someone who cannot pay their court debt, Michigan—and every other state—would be better off if people like Kitia were helped to break the cycle of poverty and repay the debt they owe.

Phil Telfeyan

Rather than making life harder and more expensive for Kitia, Michigan could provide her with the tools she needs to get back on her feet. Especially in a place like Detroit, which offers no meaningful public transportation option, Kitia needs a way to get around.

She needs empathy from us, and justice from our justice system.


Phil Telfeyan is founding director of Equal Justice Under Law a Washington, DC based nonprofit that challenges “wealth-based discrimination.”  He served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice for five years, where he specialized in employment discrimination and immigrants’ rights. He welcomes comments from readers.


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Prison Sentences for “Kettle Falls Five” for Medical Marijuana Grow in Washington State

The marijuana grow that netted jail time for four members of a self-proclaimed medicinal farming family out of Stevens County may have started with good intentions, but ended as a “distribution center,” said the federal judge who handed down their sentences Friday.
Sentences in Kettle Falls Five case
Rolland Gregg: 2 years, 9 months; 3 years supervised release; $7,500 fine
Jason Zucker: 16 months; 4 years supervised release; $5,000 fine
Michelle Gregg: 1 year, 1 day; 3 years supervised release; $2,000 fine
Rhonda Firestack-Harvey: 1 year, 1 day; 3 years supervised release

“Maybe that was a byproduct of being so successful,” said U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice, ruling the members of the so-called Kettle Falls Five grew more than 150 pounds of marijuana in the hills of Stevens County between 2011 and 2012.

Rice sentenced Rolland Gregg to 2 years and 9 months in prison. He gave Gregg’s wife, Michelle, and his mother, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 1 year and 1 day in federal custody. All will remain out of prison pending an appeal, a notice of which will be filed in the next two weeks, said lead defense attorney Phil Telfeyan.

“I thought Judge Rice would be much more reasonable,” Telfeyan said after the hearing, saying the lengthy prison sentences in a state that subsequently decriminalized marijuana and set up state systems to grow recreational and medical pot “outrageous.”Kettle Falls Five

Rice found that the members of the family did grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. But that did not factor into his sentence.

“This court does not enforce state law,” Rice told a courtroom nearly full of supporters, some wearing green ribbons signifying the medical marijuana industry and others with T-shirts bearing supportive messages. “This court enforces federal law.”

It’s a statement Rice made before sentencing co-conspirator Jason Zucker, who took a plea deal before trial earlier this year and testified against the family, to 16 months in federal prison in July. Larry Harvey, the patriarch of the family, recently died of cancer, his wife said.

“I am very sorry for breaking the law,” Firestack-Harvey told Rice, an apology echoed by all three defendants sentenced Friday in Spokane. “If my husband, Larry Harvey, were with us, I know he would be remorseful as well.”

The case has drawn national media attention and has been cited by activist groups as an example of prosecutorial overreach by the federal government. In comments after sentencing, Telfeyan referred to a federal spending bill passed last year that prohibits federal prosecutors from using public money to try marijuana cases that would be protected by state laws.

Kari Boiter, a local marijuana advocate, took in the proceedings Friday. She called the hearing, and the prosecution’s case against the family, “a huge waste of time and money.”

“Clearly Congress has changed the law, but prosecutors are still going after these cases,” Boiter said.

A positive from the sentence could be a wake-up call to national legislators that they need to remove marijuana from a list of controlled substances that are always outlawed, Boiter said. Under federal law, marijuana is classified in the same category as heroin and LSD.

“I think the stakes are very high, and this case foreshadows how things are changing,” Boiter said, adding that the defendants initially faced potential mandatory prison sentences of 10 years.

Kevin Oliver, the executive director of the Washington chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he was puzzled by federal prosecutors’ interest in the case.

“If you look at all the industrial grows in Seattle” that were operating outside of state law, “they should be lined up before a federal prosecutor way before this family,” Oliver said.

The Harvey residence, northwest of Kettle Falls, was searched by federal authorities in August 2012, almost fourteen years after Washington state voters approved the decriminalization of medical marijuana and three months before the approval of a recreational marijuana market.

Federal prosecutors had argued at trial that the growers profited from the marijuana farm while defense attorneys said the weed grown there was used purely for medicinal purposes.

On Thursday, prosecutors introduced a report from Sam Keiser, the Drug Enforcement agent in charge of the case. That report referred to a conversation in February 2013 between Michelle Gregg and federal authorities, where Gregg said trimmers were paid tens of thousands of dollars to prepare the marijuana after harvest in 2011.

Telfeyan argued the defense had requested the notes from that conversation more than a year ago, to prepare for trial. U.S. Assistant Attorney Earl Hicks said Gregg and her attorney, Bevan Maxey, were present for the conversation and should have disclosed its details to the defense team.

The defense filed a motion to dismiss the case because prosecutors had not provided the report, which the agent prepared earlier this week based on his notes from the interview more than two and a half years ago. Rice denied that motion, saying it didn’t factor into his sentencing considerations.

Telfeyan, a civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., said that issue would be brought up in an appeal of the case to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’re going to challenge it,” he said.

Originally Posted in the Spokane Review and written by Kip Hill