Seventy-six percent of Americans drive alone to work every day, according to data from the 2016 American Community Survey. Others use their cars to pick up their kids from school or run errands. None of this is possible without a driver’s license, and in Guilford and Forsyth counties, thousands of individuals — many of them Black — have had their licenses suspended because of an inability to pay outstanding fines.
“If I had never gotten my license, I never would have been able to become a full-time city employee,” said Dana Daughtry, an employee with the city of Greensboro. “Most employers require a license now. If you are not able to get in a position where you are able to pay on your fines and work at a job at the same time, that would be incredibly hard.”
In August 2014, Daughtry was released from prison after serving for a habitual felon charge. He had taken re-entry and self-development classes inside, and decided that when he got out he would turn his life around. He started working for the city as a yard-waste employee then found out about an opportunity to become a full-time employee. However, outstanding fines from traffic tickets he had gotten in Virginia kept him from getting his license back, which was a requirement for the job.
“I think that starting out, the original fines were for $600, but by the time I was able to start paying them, I wound up paying about $2,600,” said Daughtry, who is Black.
He signed up for a payment plan through the counties in Virginia where he owed the fines and was able to get his license reinstated so long as he kept paying off his debt. But that’s not how it works in North Carolina.
Under current North Carolina law, the DMV is required to revoke or suspend a driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic fine, penalty or court costs and the driving privilege remains suspended until the driver resolves their failure to comply, or FTC status. The law also includes a provision that allows defendants to restore their licenses if they demonstrate to the court that their failure to pay the fines “was not willful” and that they are “making a good faith effort to pay,” but most of the time, neither the courts nor the DMV lets defendants know about this right, according to prior reporting by TCB.
Data analyzed by researchers at Duke University shows Guilford County has the most instances of failure-to-comply cases in the state, resulting from unpaid fees and fines from criminal cases. These FTCs have led Guilford County to rank second amongst counties with the most driver’s license suspensions in the state while Forsyth County ranks fourth.
According to the 2020 data from Duke, Guilford County has 74,441 actively suspended drivers — about 17.6 percent of the population. Forsyth County has 56,861 or 19 percent of the population. The two largest counties in the state — Wake County and Mecklenburg County with 1.1 million people each — have much smaller suspension rates. Wake County has 107,313 suspension or 10.7 percent of their population, while Mecklenburg has 36,919 or just 4.4 percent of their population. The data also shows that of the 1.3 million people who have had their driver’s licenses suspended in the state, 66 percent are for failure to appear in court while 21 percent are for failing to pay traffic fines or court fees.
In North Carolina, people have 40 days to pay fines and court costs from the time a district court judge finds them guilty of traffic violations. If they aren’t able to pay, the courts send notifications to the DMV, letting the drivers know that their license will be revoked in the next 60 days.
Why disparities can exist between counties
Part of the reason for the disparity between counties could be attributed to how each county’s district attorney’s office handles FTCs in each county. During a community call hosted by Greensboro’s human rights commission on March 24, Quisha Mallette, a staff attorney with the NC Justice Center, mentioned how in Durham, a mass relief program exists to help restore licenses. Called the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program, the initiative is a collaborative effort between the city and the district attorney’s office that identifies individuals who qualify for relief. As of March 2019, the program had dismissed more than 70,000 cases — mostly for traffic charges tied to license suspensions — waived more than $200,000 in unpaid traffic fines and court fees which were on average 13-years-old for more than 1,200 people according to Indy Week.
In Guilford County, District Court Judge Tonia Cutchin explained during the community call that elected officials had been working on a driver’s license restoration program last year before the pandemic hit.
“We had set up a plan to add a procedure to eliminate 450 individual court costs and fines at a time, but then unfortunately we were impacted by the pandemic,” Cutchin said on the call.
However, in the last three weeks, she said that the courts have “ramped up” their efforts again and have conducted two more mass eliminations in Greensboro and High Point, with more restorations on the court calendars. In the meantime, as the courts get back to being open regularly, Cutchin asked for patience and understanding.
“Understand that this is a process,” she said. “These documents have to be initiated and sent through the court process, sent to Raleigh and the DMV and so it takes a little bit more time to make sure those monies are eliminated…. The elected officials here in Guilford County are addressing it; we are concerned about it.”
Triad City Beat was not able to reach a spokesperson for the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office for comment on whether they are conducting mass relief for fines and fees.
During the call, Cutchin said she understands the importance of having a car for economic sustainability.
“A person needs a driver’s license, a livable wage in order to make sure they have a stable household and can maintain employment here in Guilford County,” she said.
How race and class affect the issue
The issue of driver’s license suspensions is further complicated when looking at demographic and socioeconomic data. According to the research by those at Duke University, criminal debt disproportionately impacts Black and lower-income people in North Carolina. Of the approximately 650,000 people with current FTCs, close to half are Black, despite the fact that the Black population only makes up about 22 percent of the state, according to 2019 Census data. The Duke report also states that “for the white population, we see evidence that the number of white individuals in poverty more strongly predicts FTC suspensions than white individuals above the poverty line.”
Daughtry, who was living with this mother when he got out of prison, was able to pay off his fees with his part-time job. He said that he was lucky, and understands that it’s not feasible for many who end up getting fined through traffic tickets or court costs.
“It’s like you have this hanging over your head,” Daughtry said. “Imagine paying rent and getting a job and having to get a ride there and pay fines and court costs and stuff. People wouldn’t be able to get ahead as fast as I was able to.”
In North Carolina, traffic fines and court costs can add up quickly. A standard traffic infraction costs $147.50 while additional amounts like a $10 fee for every motor vehicle offense and a $50 fee for improper equipment can be added. Failure to appear to court costs $200 and failure to comply is another $50.
“It’s just another way to criminalize poverty,” said Lauren Gebhard, an assistant public defender who works in Guilford County. “It just becomes a spiral.”
Mallette, with the NC Justice Center, said that in their research they found that if a person doesn’t pay fines owed within a year, they will most likely never be able to pay for those fines.
“That means that their license can remain indefinitely suspended for years,” Mallette said.
The Duke data shows that of the 1.8 million FTCs given from the 1980s to Jan. 25, 2021 in North Carolina, about a third are uncured or unpaid. About 20 percent were able to pay within the 30-120-day span and another 14 percent were able to pay within one to five years.
In order to change these systems, Gehard said she wants to see more compassion from judges and district attorneys.
“I think that in general it would be better if people were more aware and more empathetic about what not having their license can mean for people,” Gebhard said. “People take for granted how important it is to be able to legally get in your car and go, especially during COVID. There’s not a lot of public transportation options and I think just being a little bit more empathetic to that is important…. I think that would really help.”
According to Free to Drive, a coalition that focuses on ending debt-based license suspensions, there is no active legislation in North Carolina aimed at changing the laws as they currently stand. In July 2020, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced the Driving for Opportunity Act which would repeal the federal mandate to suspend driver’s licenses for certain non-driving-related offenses and would give grants to states that repeal laws that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. In December, the bill was referred to the committee on the judiciary in addition to the committee on transportation and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, states such as Michigan, Illinois and Utah enacted legislative reforms to alleviate the problem this year. Daughtry said he wants to see the same in his state.
“It just shows that North Carolina is not friendly to giving people second chances,” he said.