Civil Rights Groups Sue DMV for Revoking Licenses Over Unpaid Fines | News
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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Civil Rights Groups Sue DMV for Revoking Licenses Over Unpaid Fines

Posted by on Wed, May 30, 2018 at 12:24 PM

In a federal lawsuit, civil rights groups say the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles' practice of revoking the driver's licenses of people who cannot pay for traffic tickets is unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) filed the suit in U.S. District Court today on behalf of two plaintiffs who have had their licenses revoked.

Forty-three states revoke licenses over unpaid fines and fees, but in North Carolina, that revocation is automatic and indefinite. As a result, about 430,000 North Carolinians have had their licenses revoked because of court debt, according to 2017 DMV numbers.  (North Carolina also suspends licenses automatically and indefinitely for failing to appear in court for traffic offenses).

State law requires that licenses be automatically revoked for nonpayment of a traffic ticket forty days after a court judgement is entered, but the law doesn't require a hearing to determine whether the person is capable of paying the fines or fees levied. The groups filing the suit says this violates North Carolinian's Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

“North Carolina’s unjust traffic fine collection scheme has created a two-tiered system of justice where people charged with the same traffic offense are punished differently based on how much money they have," said Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow for the ACLU of NC. "Those who can afford to pay their traffic tickets get to keep their license, while those who cannot have their license revoked, making it harder to find and keep a job and take care of their families. North Carolina is denying a basic necessity – having a driver’s license – to hundreds of thousands of residents simply because of their economic standing, trapping countless people in a cycle of poverty. This unfair and unconstitutional system must end.”

Laura Holland, a criminal justice attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says the law forces low-income people facing traffic fines to choose between paying the fines and paying for needs like housing, food and health care. Having a license revoked can keep people from keeping or getting a job, and put them at risk for further interaction with the courts if they drive anyway.

The two plaintiffs in the case are Seti Johnson and Sharee Smoot, both residents of Cabarrus County.

According to a press release, Johnson is a black father of three who learned during a traffic stop that his license had been revoked because of unpaid tickets. He used his rent money to pay what he owed and had his license restored, but then received another ticket for driving with a revoked license and the court ordered him to pay $308. He was assessed additional fees because he couldn't pay the full amount immediately, and has struggled to pay the remaining balance, the press release says.

Smoot is a single mom who supports her daughter and her mother. She works at a call center forty-five minutes from her home without access to public transportation and has to "make the difficult choice of losing her job and not being able to care for herself and her family or driving on a revoked driver’s license and risking additional traffic tickets," the lawsuit says.  On her $9 an hour wages, she was unable to pay the fines and fees she was assessed before her license was revoked in 2016, and again when she was convicted of driving without a license last year.

“No one should have to live with the burden of their license being revoked, and all the expenses that come with that, simply because they don’t have any money,” Johnson said in a statement. “I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license. I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.”

The groups bringing the suit ask that the court declare that revoking licenses for nonpayment violates constitutional rights, prohibit the DMV from continuing the practice, and order the DMV to reinstate licenses that have been suspended over court debt.

Nc Drivers License Complaint by Sarah on Scribd

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