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Lawsuit Seeks To End North Carolina Practice Of Revoking Driver’s Licenses If You Can’t Pay Tickets

Seti Johnson is a 27 year-old black father with three children, who lives in North Carolina.  He is one of several residents that face the prospect of having their driver’s license revoked because they live in poverty.

“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,” Seti Johnson declared. “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.”

He is one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) on May 31.

The organizations argue North Carolina violates due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution by revoking poor residents’ licenses.

According to the ACLU, “The DMV’s unlawful license revocation stems from a North Carolina statute that requires the automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket 40 days after a court judgment. But the law does not require a hearing before revocation to ensure that a person punished under the statute is actually able to pay.”

“U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that inability to pay must be considered before punishing a person for nonpayment of a court fine,” the ACLU adds.

A declaration [PDF] filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina outlines what Johnson, who currently lives with his mother, has endured.

“In June or July 2017, I was pulled over by the police while driving,” Johnson recalls. “I was surprised when the police officer told me that my driver’s license had been revoked for not paying old traffic tickets. The officer took my license from me on the spot and gave me a ticket for ‘DWLR not impaired’ (i.e., driving while license revoked).”

He contacted a district court for information on paying fines and court costs stemming from old tickets. His only option was to “pay the unpaid fines and court costs and any late fees in full.”

“Instead of paying my rent, I paid more than $700 in fines, court costs, and late fees to the district court on the old tickets. My driver’s license was later reinstated by the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. In the meantime, I fell behind on my rent payments and eventually had to move in with my mom.”

Unfortunately for Johnson, he was issued another “DWLR not impaired” ticket before he had the $700 to pay the district court.

He appeared in district court on April 12, 2018, as a result of his September 2017 ticket. The charge was reduced to “failure to notify DMV of address change,” and Johnson was convicted.

“The district court sentenced me to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs,” Johnson said. “But it did not give me any option to resolve the fine and costs besides paying the total $308 to the court. It did not conduct a hearing to ask me about or decide my ability to pay the fine and costs.”

He was informed that he had 40 days to pay “total monies owed” or he would have his license suspended again.

Additionally, the prosecutor ordered him to pay $100 that day or else his license would be revoked.

“Although I had just lost my job and had less than $300 to my name, I scraped together $100 to pay the court that day because I was afraid to lose my license again. However, because I did not pay the full $308 that day, the court charged man additional $20 ‘installment plan and set up fee,’ even though the bill of costs [said] the entire amount [was] due within 40 days.”

Johnson owed $228 by May 22 but could not pay it. He had overdue bills from repairs to his truck so that he could pass inspection and get insurance. He had a cell phone bill and $2,000 in back rent that he owed. His children also have basic needs: diapers, clothes, and shoes.

If the lawsuit receives certification, Johnson would represent those who will have their license revoked in the future because they cannot pay fines, penalties, or court costs.

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Sharee Smoot, is a 31 year-old black mother who has a nine year-old daughter and lives with her grandmother. She moved in with her because she cannot afford to live on her own.

“I currently work at a call center forty-five minutes away from my home,” according to Smoot’s declaration [PDF] to the court. “I do not have family members who can pick me up from and drop me off at work. So I am forced to make the difficult choice of losing my job or driving on a revoked driver’s license and risking more traffic tickets.”

Like Johnson, she was sentenced by the district court in 2016 to pay $308 but could not afford it. She was given no other options for resolving the fine or court costs.

When she received notice that her license was revoked, she was responsible for “rent, utilities, a car note, car insurance, groceries, and necessities for me, my daughter, and mother. Between my SNAP benefits and the income from my work, I had just enough money to meet our needs.”

Once Smoot obtained access to overtime at the group home where she was employed, her SNAP benefits were canceled. Yet, soon the access to overtime dwindled and she could not afford to pay for her family’s needs.

Smoot had to quit school at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte because she had limited income.

In 2017, she was issued an other ticket for not having a license. Again, she appeared, was convicted, and ordered to pay $235. She did not have the money, and the court did not bother to figure out if she had the ability to pay the fine and court costs.

Smoot was eventually assessed a $50 late fee. The court also charged a $5 arrest fee.

“I got behind on my car payments and my rent. As a result, my car was repossessed. Because I did not have transportation to work, I lost my job, and my daughter and I had to move in with my grandmother.”

Smoot currently works at a call center, but she typically works less than 40 hours a week because incoming call volume is low.

If the lawsuit is certified, Smoot would represent all residents who live in the state with revoked driver’s licenses.

“Having a revoked license has hindered me from moving forward in my life,” Smoot concludes. “It is my hope that this lawsuit will result in a clearer path for me, and others in a similar situation, to get our driver’s licenses back.”

“It is not fair for the DMV to revoke a person’s license simply because she does not have enough money to pay for a traffic ticket. I want to help so that I, and the people in my community, do not have to choose between not working and caring for family or driving illegally and risking more traffic tickets.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."