One ticket shouldn’t cost you your li­cense

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY CHRISTO­PHER GERGEN AND FRED­ER­ICK MAYER Spe­cial to the Ob­server Gergen is the CEO of For­ward Cities and found­ing part­ner of HQ Raleigh. Mayer is a pro­fes­sor at the Sanford School of Pub­lic Policy and direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal Lead­er­ship, Inn

We’ve all done it. We’re in a hurry or are just not pay­ing at­ten­tion, and we drive over the speed limit. If we’re un­lucky, we get caught.

For most of us, a speed­ing ticket is not a dis­as­ter, but it can quickly turn into a catas­tro­phe if you can’t af­ford to pay or don’t make your court date. For many poorer North Carolini­ans, that is ex­actly what hap­pens.

Gen­er­ally, if you fail to pay traf­fic fines and court costs within 100 days, or if you fail to ap­pear in traf­fic court when re­quired, your li­cense is in­def­i­nitely sus­pended. Re­in­stat­ing it re­quires pay­ing ad­di­tional fees. In to­tal, a per­son can eas­ily owe hun­dreds of dol­lars. If you don’t have that kind of money, and many North Carolini­ans do not (ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Re­serve, 44% of Amer­i­cans could not af­ford an un­ex­pected $400 ex­pense), you are now stuck with­out a valid li­cense.

Hav­ing a sus­pended li­cense is much more than an in­con­ve­nience. If you can’t drive, you may not be able to get to work or pick up your kids af­ter school. And many jobs re­quire a valid driver’s li­cense, in­clud­ing many jobs that don’t in­volve driv­ing.

Peo­ple who con­tinue to drive risk be­ing fun­neled into the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem with Driv­ing While Li­cense Re­voked charges, which trig­gers even more court fees and can lead to pro­ba­tion and even prison.

To­day, an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of North Carolini­ans face this predica­ment. Data pro­vided by the NC Divi­sion of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles in re­sponse to a re­quest for pub­lic records sug­gest that nearly 1.2 mil­lion North Carolini­ans have a sus­pended li­cense for fail­ure to pay or fail­ure to ap­pear in court.

In North Carolina and else­where around the coun­try many have be­gun to ques­tion the jus­tice of what they call a “pay to drive” policy.

Last fall, Durham – which es­ti­mates that more than 40,000 of its res­i­dents have a sus­pended li­cense – of­fered a pilot pro­gram to help those whose li­censes had been sus­pended for at least 18 months and whose ini­tial vi­o­la­tion was rel­a­tively mi­nor (no DWIs or reck­less driv­ing, for ex­am­ple). While in prin­ci­ple it was al­ready pos­si­ble to go to court and pe­ti­tion for re­lief, al­most no one did it. Ryan Smith on the Durham city in­no­va­tion team and Josephine Kerr Davis in the District At­tor­ney’s of­fice won­dered what would hap­pen if they made it eas­ier for in­di­vid­u­als to have their cases con­sid­ered. Any­one with a sus­pended li­cense could sim­ply text or email their name and date of birth to en­roll in the pro­gram.

Said Smith, “We ex­pected a to get a few hun­dred texts and emails. In­stead we got 2500 ap­pli­ca­tions. We re­ally touched a nerve. We had no idea we were sit­ting on top of such des­per­a­tion.”

As a re­sult of the pro­gram, the Durham District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice dis­missed years-olds, mi­nor traf­fic charges for over 500 res­i­dents that were pre­vent­ing them from restor­ing their li­cense. A few crit­ics of the pro­gram wor­ried that it might lead to less ac­count­abil­ity. But the pro­gram doesn’t elim­i­nate the need to pay for the orig­i­nal in­frac­tion, and in any event, los­ing your li­cense for 18 months or more is al­ready a steep penalty. As Davis puts it, “You can’t con­tinue to pun­ish peo­ple be­cause they don’t have means to pay.”

This fall, Durham is plan­ning to launch a more ex­pan­sive ef­fort to as­sist low-in­come res­i­dents in restor­ing long-term sus­pended li­censes. The District At­tor­neys in Wake and New Hanover coun­ties are ex­plor­ing sim­i­lar pro­grams. It’s worth watch­ing to see whether they suc­ceed.


For poor North Carolini­ans, one park­ing ticket can be­come crip­pling.

Christo­pher Gergen

Fred­er­ick Mayer

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