According to the American Civil Liberties Union, states should not revoke driver’s licenses of offenders who have not paid their traffic fines. The ACLU and three other advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the state of North Carolina, arguing before a federal court that driver’s licenses are a right that should not be taken away without due process including a hearing.
According to ACLU, Seti Johnson -- a low-income single mother - claimed, “I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license.” She added, “I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.”
The state of North Carolina automatically revokes licenses of drivers who fail to pay their fines for traffic violations within 40 days of a court judgment. The state does not require a hearing before revoking driver’s licenses.
However, the ACLU claims that the state must hold hearings and let traffic violators argue for exemptions if they cannot afford to pay the fines incurred by breaking the law. The advocacy group claims that the law favors the wealthy who are able to pay their fines. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim that North Carolina unduly punishes poor people who struggle to pay their fines even though driving is critical to making a living. “I just want a fair chance to take care of my family,” said Sharee Smoot, another plaintiff. “I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license.”
So far, North Carolina’s transportation department has not formally reviewed the lawsuit yet.
“The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles unconstitutionally punishes people by taking away their driver’s licenses simply because they cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets, without due process or any regard for their ability to pay,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s predatory and puts thousands of individuals with low incomes at risk. A license permits physical mobility and enables economic transcendence. Taking licenses away from those most in need is not just illegal, it is also counterproductive and heartless. We are suing to end this unjust practice.”
SPLC and the ACLU wrote in documents presented to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina:
1. Plaintiff: Mr. Seti Johnson, a 27-year-old Black father of three, faces an impossible dilemma. Because he has been unemployed and cannot afford to pay off a traffic ticket, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (the “DMV”) has automatically entered an order revoking his license, which will become indefinitely effective on or around July 24, 2018. Mr. Johnson has just obtained a new job, which provides a potential path to upward mobility and to paying off that ticket. Without a driver’s license, he will have to either forego the job and figure out a different way to get his children to school, daycare, and the doctor’s office, or he will have to illegally drive.
2. Plaintiff: Ms. Smoot, a 31-year-old Black mother, faces the same dilemma. Her license was revoked in 2016 and 2018 because she has been unable to pay her traffic tickets. A revoked license has forced her to make the difficult choice of either driving illegally and risk arrest or additional tickets every day simply because there is no other way for her to support herself, her daughter, and her grandmother or stay at home and lose her job and ability to provide for her and her family’s daily needs.
In August 2014, 19-year-old Michael Brown -- a black man -- was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The incident, for which the officer was ultimately exonerated, caused a firestorm of controversy and months of unrest in Missouri and major cities elsewhere when citizens raised objections to what was considered racist and unfair treatment of black Americans by white law enforcement.
Brown’s shooting death placed a focus on policing and jurisprudence in Missouri and the Ferguson region. In St. Louis County and surrounding counties, there are more than 90 municipalities. Most of their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, while 81 have their own municipal court. By comparison, Jackson County, Missouri, which encompasses Kansas City, is larger than St. Louis County but has about two-thirds the population. However, Jackson County has but 19 municipalities and just 15 municipal courts — less than a quarter of that St. Louis County has.
A review of Ferguson's budget by the Washington Post showed that the St. Louis suburb relies heavily on fines that skyrocketed in the years before the Brown shooting. Court fine collections accounted at that time for one-fifth of total operating revenue. In the 2014 fiscal year, Ferguson received $2.5 million+ in municipal court revenue, which represented an 80 percent increase from only two years prior, when fines brought in about $1.4 million. Ferguson has about 22,000 residents. Even though media and advocacy groups focused on the law enforcement methods and the tense relationship between local police and residents and the area’s shifting demographics, some observers have asserted that simmering frustrations over the municipal court system and fines may have contributed to civil strife and rioting in the streets.
In St. Louis County, some towns receive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. Most of the fines are levied for traffic offenses but also for fare-hopping on St. Louis’s light rail system, loud music, zoning violations violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace,” all of which give police considerable discretion to look for other violations.