New report examines widespread, destructive practice of suspending a driver’s license when a person fails to pay a court debt
RALEIGH (October 2, 2017) – The indefinite suspension of a driver’s license when a person fails to pay a court debt makes it difficult to keep or find a job and can cycle a person into the criminal justice system, according a to a new state-by-state report and survey from the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Driven by Dollars examines the widespread and destructive practice of suspending a driver’s license, including here in North Carolina, where nearly half a million residents had a suspended license in August 2017 (according to the North Carolina DMV) because they failed to pay fees attached to traffic tickets.
A North Carolinian found responsible for a traffic infraction pays $147.50, the same “general court of justice” fee that a person convicted of a criminal offense pays. In 1995, this fee was $41. In addition to the general court of justice fee, several additional traffic infractions amounts are commonly added to traffic bills, including a $10 fee for every motor vehicle offense and a $50 fee for improper equipment. A person that fails to appear in court is charged an additional $200. The total bill from a single traffic stop is often hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
“Hundreds of dollars in sudden traffic fees can strain budgets, especially in low-wealth households, where many families pay fees they cannot afford in lieu of rent, child care, car payments, and groceries,” said Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Second Chance initiative and contributor to the report. “People who continue to drive during suspensions risk being cycled into the criminal justice system for offenses related to driving without a license.”
Thousands of people in North Carolina are on supervised probation for driving while their driver’s licenses were suspended. According to figures from the NC Department of Public Safety, the majority of these individuals are people of color.
Despite the severe impact of driver’s licenses suspensions, relatively few individuals are able to resolve the debt each year and restore their licenses, a strong indicator of the often long-term and devastating nature of these suspensions. In North Carolina, there are possible avenues of relief for people unable to pay fees and fines. However, these “ability to pay” protections are generally inaccessible and unknown to people who cannot afford legal representation.
“There is strong and growing interest among law enforcement officials and policymakers to resolve these long-term traffic debts and get people licensed again rather than isolating them from economic opportunities or cycling them into the criminal justice system,” Bowes said.”