On March 4, a federal court in Winston-Salem reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit that could potentially allow for thousands of North Carolina drivers to get their licenses back or have fees removed. Johnson v. Goodwin, which was originally filed on May 30, 2018, argued that the state DMV’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses due to unpaid traffic fines was unconstitutional. Now, close to four years later, the settlement indicates that the DMV must inform approximately 185,000 drivers of their right to a hearing and the process by which to request one if their driver’s license revocation was due to an inability to pay fines, penalties, or court costs. The hearings will determine if they are eligible for a fee reduction or removal and reinstatement of their license. The settlement impacts drivers who had their licenses revoked due to an inability to pay fees starting May 30, 2015, to present day.

Prior to this settlement outcome, the court found drivers were not properly notified of their right to a hearing if they were unable to pay their fines.

“People should know that there’s a process to request a court hearing and possible relief if they believe their driver’s licenses were wrongly revoked.” said Michele Delgado, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. “The public should have clear information about their rights to a state court hearing regarding their ability to pay traffic-related fines and costs before their license is taken away from them.”

However, Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, Director of Communications for the ACLU shared that not all of the 185,000 drivers will be eligible for a reduction or elimination of fines or reinstatement of their license.

“Data from the attorney of the Department of NC Justice indicated that approximately 57,000 will be eligible as the other number of people have additional barriers to reinstatement of their licenses or an inability to pay fees was not the only reason for their license revocation,” he said.

How it started

The settlement originated between Seti Johnson, a father of three in Mecklenburg County, and Torre Jessup, NC DMV Commissioner. However, according to Chicurel-Bayard, it quickly moved to a class-action lawsuit after organizations such as ACLU realized that thousands of North Carolina drivers were affected, and other plaintiffs joined the case.

Seti Johnson (photo by Rick Hovis)

As part of their lawsuit, lawyers with ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice found that drivers who were unable to pay traffic or court fines were disproportionately drivers of color and those from low-income communities. Past reporting by TCB found that Guilford County ranks second amongst counties with the most driver’s license suspensions in the state while Forsyth County ranks fourth.

However, data shows that North Carolina is far from alone in this disproportionate injustice. According to a recent ACLU research report, “6 percent of US adults had outstanding legal or court debt, with Black adults (12 percent) and Latinx adults (9 percent) more likely to have these debts than white adults (5 percent). People who cannot pay face mounting penalties in the form of additional fines, fees, and other sanctions, such as arrest, extended probation, incarceration, and driver’s license suspension.”

Originally two plaintiffs were represented in the case, but once it switched to a class-action lawsuit the case represented anyone who fit the criteria as a member of the affected class.

“This issue is clearly a systematic inequality and demonstrates racism as it is impacting the drivers of color more than white drivers,” Chicurel-Bayard states. “The plaintiffs are all courageous to pursue this injustice and attempt to correct this issue and those it harms.”

Why this happens

Many traffic tickets which are issued at checkpoints result in an inability to pay, which leads to driver’s license revocation. However, in North Carolina there is a higher chance of drivers of color being stopped and searched at traffic stops compared to white drivers. According to Open Data Policing, in North Carolina Black people are 4 percent more likely to be searched at a checkpoint stop than white people. Their data also shares that 57.4 percent of Greensboro Police Department traffic stops are people of color. Similarly, traffic stops by the Winston-Salem Police Department impact drivers of color more at 54.3 percent.

Consequently, that’s a problem because driving is a necessity for many people to maintain their quality of life. Drivers use their cars to get to work, go to the store, and even access healthcare.

“The impact of revoking a driver’s license is severe,” said Miriam Gutman, senior attorney for the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It deprives people of the ability to support and care for themselves and their families, and it funnels them into cycles of debt and poverty. We hope that today’s settlement can help disrupt that cycle for many North Carolinians and their families.”

Johnson, the original plaintiff, had to make a hard choice between paying traffic fines and supporting his children.

“After a routine traffic stop last summer in Cabarrus County, he was surprised to learn that his license had been revoked for unpaid traffic tickets. He was forced to use his rent money to pay off the more than $700 he owed to reinstate his license,” according to the ACLU case page.

The terms of the settlement agreement indicate that the DMV must send notices to those approximately 185,000 drivers over a three-week period. According to Marty R. Homan, Communications Manager at the N.C. Department of Transportation, “There are several variables that will affect the start date for the mailings, but our current estimate is about a month from now.”

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