Suspended-License Case: More Complicated, Not Less Dumb

His T-shirt reads "Trust Me"

Major developments recently in the case of the guy with the suspended license who took a court call on Zoom while driving. See Guy With Suspended License Takes Court Call on Zoom While Driving (May 31, 2024). For example, his license wasn’t suspended.

Sort of.

Corey Harris did get a suspension, way back in 2010, for failure to pay child support. But it turns out that a judge rescinded that in 2022. So Harris didn’t understand, he told WXYZ News, “how he even ended up being charged with driving while license suspended” after an October 2023 traffic stop. That charge was the subject of the Zoom hearing shown in the viral clip. Reports said the 2022 order should have been sent to the Secretary of State by the “Friend of the Court,” a county office that helps with family-law matters like child support. Or is supposed to help, at least. Problems like these are apparently common enough in Michigan that the state has created a special program to help people get their driving privileges back, because more bureaucracy always helps.

So the story, if any, should have been about the unfairness of the system, not Harris’s allegedly poor decisions, shouted a columnist for Reason magazine after this came to light. He definitely had a point about the system. Michigan, like many other states, has a long list of crimes for which one can lose a license, and some of them have nothing to do with driving. As this similar op-ed points out, revoking or suspending a license for unpaid debt (like child support) can be “draconian and counterproductive,” especially for people who don’t earn much. If somebody can’t pay child support, making it harder to get and keep a job isn’t likely to help (though it’s less draconian than jailing them). So the policy is bad, and even worse if the bureaucracy makes it hard to get suspensions cleared.

Harris was a victim, in other words, not someone to be mocked, according to the Reason columnist, who was quite miffed about the whole thing. “[T]his never should have been a national story to begin with,” he griped. “A man in Michigan driving allegedly when he wasn’t supposed to is not newsworthy enough to deserve coverage…. Good for a social media laugh? Sure. Justifying its own news cycle? No.” Harris “didn’t deserve to have his license suspended in the first place,” the other op-ed writer similarly argued, and he “didn’t deserve to be mocked.”

Well, let me be the judge of that.

True, but for the suspension, Harris wouldn’t have been cited in October 2023 and wouldn’t have faced the hearing or the resulting mockery. That is all true. But the fact remains: Harris knew he’d been charged with driving without a license, and he appeared for a hearing on that charge via a Zoom video call he made while driving a car. Even if the charge itself was unfair, my friends, that does not change the mockable nature of that particular choice.

Unless he had to drive at that exact time for an unavoidable and possibly even heroic reason, as some reports suggested. WXYZ noted, for example, that “Harris said he was driving his wife to the doctor because her medical condition was worsening.” Harris may have said that to WXYZ, but he didn‘t say it to the court during the Zoom call. What he told the court was “I’m pulling in to my doctor’s office right now.” Maybe he meant “our doctor,” but if it was really an emergency, it’s strange he didn’t mention that immediately or at least when he realized the court was revoking his bond. So absent some evidence to support the “dying wife” excuse, I’m sticking with my belief that Harris did deserve to be mocked.

But it is true, in a sense, that he did not “deserve to have his license suspended in the first place.” This is not so much because the policy is unfair, but because he never had a license to begin with.

In what the Detroit News called “a startling turn of events,” the judge said last week that after reviewing more records, he found that Harris “has never had a Michigan license—ever. And [he] has never had a license in the other 49 states and commonwealths that form up this great union.” The state couldn’t have suspended my client’s license, Your Honor, because he’s never had one! The defense rests.

Except, again, for the driving part.

According to this report, in Michigan someone without a driver’s license may still have a driving record. The point is apparently to keep track of bad deeds so that if you ever did try to get a license, you wouldn’t be able to. So Harris had a “suspension” in his record, even though he’s never had a license the state could suspend. To get this pseudo-suspension removed, he would have had to pay a fine and file a release form with the Secretary of State. Only then would the state drop its threat to suspend any license Harris might one day get. But Harris never did those things.

So, again, the level of bureaucracy here is ridiculous and it’s easy to see how it could be very unfair. It’s just that it wasn’t unfair here, because Harris not only knew he was driving without a license during the Zoom call about his driving without a license, he knew he has never had a driver’s license at all. He has had a state ID, which he renewed every year as required, and in Michigan that is a substitute for a driver’s license (you can’t have both). In fact, he renewed the ID most recently on December 28, after he was cited for driving without a license.

Asked why he didn’t get a license during that time, Harris told the judge he couldn’t get to the Secretary of State’s office because he was “bedridden due to an accident.” It apparently didn’t occur to him that the judge might have records showing Harris had in fact been to that very office on December 28 to renew his state ID. But he did.

Given that Harris lied to the judge about that, I’m even less inclined to believe the “dying wife” excuse for the Zoom call. On the other hand, Harris did wear a T-shirt that read “Trust Me” to court on Wednesday, so maybe I shouldn’t rush to judgment.