North Carolina Driver’s License Suspensions Challenged by ACLU

By: Kyle Magin June 4, 2018
An ACLU lawsuit against the North Carolina DMV hopes to overturn that state's practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fines and court fees.
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North Carolina’s driver’s license suspension policy is harmful to its poor residents.

That’s the argument American Civil Liberties Union lawyers are making on behalf of two North Carolina drivers in a federal lawsuit filed last week.

State courts there automatically revoke a driver’s license if that person has failed to pay their ticket within 40 days of a court judgement. Through fall 2017 alone, North Carolina courts suspended 436,000 licenses for nonpayment of fines.

Those include licenses for 27-year-old Seti Johnson and 31-year-old Sharee Smoot, the two plaintiffs named in the ACLU suit.

Lawyers argue in the lawsuit that the two, both working parents, struggle to find and hold employment because traffic violation fines they cannot afford prevent them from holding a valid driver’s license.

The fines increase each time a driver fails to make a full payment, causing the cost to skyrocket, according to the suit.

"For those who can afford to pay, fines and court costs are a mere inconvenience," according to the complaint. "For those who cannot afford to pay, fines or costs mean the loss of their driver's licenses, which frequently has much more serious economic consequences."

The Johnson-Smoot lawsuit represents another shot fired in the nationwide battle over debt-related license suspensions. 

In the U.S., more than 7 million driver’s licenses are suspended for reasons related to debt, according to a Washington Post study released earlier this year. In some states, like Wisconsin, driver’s licenses are suspended more often for failure to pay court fines than any driving-related reasons. 

Efforts to turn back the tide of license suspensions began earnestly in 2015. That’s when authors of a U.S. Justice Department report found debt-based suspensions to be discriminatory in Ferguson, Missouri. The report called for their removal.

Soon, city and state legislators began doing away with the suspensions. In 2017, the reversals became a full-blown trend. Politicians from both sides of the aisle began overturning the laws in an array of states, including California, Michigan, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.

The outcome of the Smoot-Johnson suit is an open question. Attorneys from the named defendant in the suit, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), are reviewing it.

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