Settlement approved for low-income NC drivers with suspended licenses

As many as 185,000 North Carolina residents are now eligible for license restoration 

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The recent settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the state of North Carolina enables thousands of its low-income drivers to seek restoration of their suspended licenses, which advocates say were revoked unfairly.

As reported by The Charlotte Observer, a federal court on Thursday approved the agreement requiring the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles to notify approximately 185,000 residents of their right under state law to testify that they didn’t have the ability to pay tickets and other financial penalties that led to the suspension of their driver’s licenses.

Stock photo of cars in traffic by Life Of Pix from Pexels.

According to the Observer, judges have the power to restore a suspended license for those who demonstrate that they cannot afford the penalties, yet, as the suit claims, the state was not adequately ensuring that residents were even aware of their right to an ability-to-pay hearing.

Per the ACLU of North Carolina, which filed the suit in 2018 alongside the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and other advocacy groups, this system violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s “promises of due process and equal protection under the law” by subjecting residents, primarily people of color, to “cycles of debt, traffic violations, and poverty.”

The groups additionally argued that people of color are disproportionately impacted by this practice due to “longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth” and the inability drive can exacerbate challenges faced by these residents in securing and maintaining employment as well as accessing essential goods and services.

Michael Delgado, staff attorney for the ACLU of N.C., told the Observer that such a revocation process is “unnecessarily harsh and punitive” and the settlement should lift some of the burden of ticket debt from residents and communities of color.

“People should know that there’s a process to request a court hearing and possible relief if they believe their driver’s licenses were wrongly revoked. The public should have clear information about their rights to a state court hearing regarding their ability to pay traffic-related fines and costs before their license is taken away from them,” Delgado told the Observer.

The outlet reports that a 2021 Duke University study entitled “Driving Injustice” concluded that upwards of 1.2 million N.C. drivers –  or 15% of the state’s population above driving age — have had their licenses revoked, whether for failure to pay tickets and court costs, failing to attend court hearings, or a combination thereof.

Per the ACLU of N.C., 15% of the state’s population also lives in poverty, and according to legal aid and justice advocates in the region, poverty is behind most suspensions. 

“It is important for the integrity of the judicial system and our communities that people come to court when they are told to do so,” Jennifer Lechner, executive director of the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission, told the Observer. “However, just like unpaid fines and fees, the root cause of a large number of failures to appear is a lack of financial resources.”

Lechner added: “We hear from clients that they missed court because they couldn’t get transportation, couldn’t get off work, or couldn’t find childcare or that they were intimidated by the court process and were afraid to come to court without an attorney. It is my belief that greater equity and transparency around the issuance of fines and fees would also encourage people to show up.”

In the settlement, the DMV will now create a website to provide a source for information on avoiding license revocation for inability to pay, as well as resources for free legal assistance, the Observer reports.

Lechner told the outlet that the settlement is “an important acknowledgment of the harm of suspensions for unpaid fines and fees,” yet added that more work is still needed to hold the state accountable.

“Poverty-based license revocation is far from over,” Lechner told the Observer. “We know that many people who are sent their notices will never receive them, many more will not be able to navigate the court system on their own … and many of those who do will ultimately be denied relief. 

She added: “Meanwhile, these suspensions will continue to impact hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.”

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