RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Attorneys and activists are calling for changes to North Carolina driver’s license suspension policies which prohibit hundreds of thousands from driving due to outstanding traffic tickets and court costs.
Division of Motor Vehicles statistics show more than 430,000 North Carolinians have suspended licenses due to failure to pay. Defense attorneys including Daniel Bowes of the North Carolina Justice Center said suspensions cause people problems getting around, or to further break the law by continuing to get behind the wheel.
“We’re not saying people shouldn’t pay, but we’re saying that when the court is actually looking at imposing those fees, which have increased dramatically in the past 20 years, they should actually take into account a person’s ability to afford those,” Bowes said.
“Because if (the courts) don’t, you’re basically sentencing this person to have their driver’s license suspended. That means they either can’t drive and can’t access economic opportunities which makes it harder to actually pay the debt that they owe, or they continue to drive and then get cycled into the criminal justice system.”
The North Carolina Justice Center called the license suspension process a “destructive practice” following a recent national study titled Driven by Dollars.
Emily Mistr is one of two Wake County public defenders whose entire workload consists of cases involving people charged for driving with revoked licenses. There were 1,400 such cases from July 2016 through July 2017, which is more than the public defender’s office can handle.
“It creates a cycle where you have someone who gets a speeding ticket who ends up cycling into the criminal justice system with driving while license revoked, who ends up possibly in front of a judge, who would put them on supervised probation, or even in jail,” Mistr said.
One of Mistr’s clients who is not driving without a license is Rose Harden. An officer in Orange County cited her for driving 5-10 miles over the speed limit in 2015. Harden hired an attorney to dispute the ticket, and she believed the situation was resolved. She later found out otherwise.
“The police stopped me one day when I was going out to lunch and ran my tags and said ‘Your license is suspended.’ And I said ‘why?’ and he said ‘because you didn’t take care of a speeding ticket you got in 2015,’” Harden said.
She lost her license for fines and fees totaling more than $300. Mistr worked to have the court costs reduced, but Harden said she can’t afford to pay the tickets or the more than $100 she needs to pay the DMV on top of the fines in order to have her license reinstated. She works part-time due to health issues and already struggles to pay her other bills.
Harden relies on relatives for rides.
“It hurts. I can’t even get in a car and drive to where I want to go, especially work. I need to work,” she said.
“My family members drive me here, drive me there. That’s not good. I need my own license so I can take myself to work and back. I can’t keep paying people to get me where I need to go. I can’t take it. I’m going broke, trying to get around.”
Mistr said she recently worked with another client who owes more than $2,000 from four unpaid traffic tickets.
“People usually go into court not knowing that when they agree to pay those fees, that if they don’t pay them, then they could actually lose their driver’s license,” Bowes said.
“These are not people who are thumbing their nose at the system or just refusing to pay, but for a lot of these people, this is an issue of poverty. They simply don’t have the money to pay.”
The North Carolina Justice Center and public defender attorneys said they hope the court system will consider more leniency for people unable to pay.
A Division of Motor Vehicles spokesperson responded by email to a request for comment on the Driven for Dollars study and an NCJC news release:
The Administrative Office of the Courts oversees court fees charged for traffic offenses. The Division of Motor Vehicles receives information from the Courts when a person is convicted of a traffic offense and, if a suspension is required by state law, the Division must follow the law and implement the suspension.