Motorists accused of failing to pay any government fee, no matter how insignificant, could find their cars held for ransom until the alleged debt is paid under legislation introduced last month in the Michigan state legislature. State Senator John Proos (R-St. Joseph) introduced a bill that would empower local jurisdictions to attach immobilizing boots to cars if an official says its registered owner has an overdue library book or an unpaid parking ticket.
The proposal amends an existing statute that governs the collection of penalties, fees or costs that are more than 56 days overdue. It adds a provision that targets automobiles as a means of collecting money for the jurisdiction.
“The court may authorize the traffic control agency of the local unit of government in which the person resides to immobilize the person’s motor vehicle until the person either remits the full amount owing or becomes current on installment payments under the court order,” Senate Bill 518 states.
The measure applies to any debt caused by “a civil infraction, a civil violation, or a parking violation, including a driver license reinstatement fee,” which in other states has proved to mean debts as small as $50. Arlington, Virginia used automated cameras to track down anyone the city believed owed as little as $120 for any reason, including overdue library books.
“I rub my hands together in great glee and anticipation,” county treasurer Frank O’Leary said in 2005 about the program. “I think it’s beautiful, it gives us a whole new dimension to collection.”
Around the same time, Bridgeport, Connecticut began using license plate scanning cameras to hunt down vehicles owned by minor debtors. The first victim of the then-new system, Calvin Carter, had $200 in back property taxes. At the time his car was hit, he was 100 feet from city hall, about to pay his taxes. New Haven used its camera scanners to seize cars from parishioners attending Sunday Mass and shoppers while they were in Wal-Mart. The city later transitioned to using the Denver boot as a cheaper alternative to towing. To have the car released, the alleged debtor must pay the original fine plus recovery costs.
The National Motorists Association (NMA) came out against the Michigan bill in testimony submitted to the state Senate Judiciary Committee. The group argues the policy would bring hardship to people who may not have done anything wrong.
“The bill would allow immobilizing a vehicle for debts that have nothing to do with driving, driving safety, or the drivers in the family,” NMA spokesman James C. Walker wrote. “As a matter of principle, the NMA believes that sanctions to drivers or vehicles should be related only to driving safety.”