A report from the left-leaning Legal Aid Justice Center says almost 1.2 million North Carolinians currently have their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked because they either failed to appear in court or failed to pay court fees. Of those, about 436,000 were for failure to pay, according to the NC Division of Motor Vehicles.
The report found that linking driving privileges with court debts keeps people in poverty, according to North Carolina Justice Center Attorney Daniel Bowes, who contributed to the report.
“We just need to, as a state, acknowledge that those numbers are way too high, that somebody who has low income or lives in a low-wealth household shouldn't lose their license just because of that,” he said.
Low-income drivers can ask a judge to waive their court fees, but most don't know about that option, which can be an arduous and confusing process. Bowes said courts should make it easier for low-income drivers to do so before imposing a fine.
Wake County Assistant Public Defender Emily Mistr agreed that attaching driving privileges with court debts keeps people poor.
“It is an issue that substantially and specifically affects people who are in the poverty cycle,” Mistr said. “You can't pay a ticket if you don't have a job. You can't get a job if you don't have a driver's license.”
Mistr's office was assigned 1,400 driving with license revoked cases last year. Of those, the office kept 944 in-house and the rest were assigned to out-of-office court-appointed attorneys. She said this issue specifically affects people who are already entrenched in a cycle of poverty.
“A person who started out being suspended, for instance, for one or two unpaid traffic tickets that they went to court and resolved, could end up permanently suspended by DMV because they've continued to have to drive,” Mistr said. “People lose their jobs frequently when they lose their driver's licenses, or can't find a job because they don't have a driver's license.”