Lawsuit: The poor shouldn't lose licenses over traffic fines
RALEIGH, N.C. – Because he can't pay $228 in traffic fines, Seti Johnson faces revocation of his North Carolina's driver's license, which means he won't be able to drive to the job he hopes to get soon. For Sharee Smoot, the amount keeping her off the road is $648.
In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys for the two say North Carolina's practice of revoking drivers' licenses of people who can't pay their traffic fines and court costs is unconstitutional because it violates the rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th amendment.
"This revocation scheme disproportionately punishes impoverished residents in violation of federal law, taking away crucial means of self-sufficiency and further pushing them into poverty," the motion for a preliminary injunction states.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Torre Jessup, commissioner of the state Division of Motor Vehicles, is named as the defendant.
North Carolina law requires automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket 40 days after a court judgment. The groups are suing because the law doesn't require a hearing to make sure the driver can pay the fine and court costs.
The statements by Smoot and Johnson describe a cycle of fines and attempts to catch up on their debts as they try to hold on to their jobs and support their families.
Last year, Johnson said he paid more than $700 in fines, court costs and late fees on previous tickets. His driver's license was reinstated, but he fell behind on rent payments and had to move in with his mother.
But before he paid the $700, he was issued another ticket for not paying. He was convicted in April of a lesser crime — failure to notify the Division of Motor Vehicles of an address change — and sentenced to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs. He paid $100 that day, but was charged an additional $20 for an installment plan and set-up fee even though the bill says the entire amount is due within 40 days.
He said he doubts he'll be able pay the remaining debt within 60 days of May 22, as he's required to do to keep his license.
"I value taking care of my responsibilities," he writes . "But that is hard to do when I am required to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs and my driver's license is revoked when I do not have the money to pay. ... No one should have to live with the burden of their license revoked because they cannot pay off their traffic tickets."
Smoot writes that she was making $9 an hour while working at a group home when was sentenced to pay $308 for driving while her license was revoked in 2016. She was assessed a $50 late fee for not paying within 40 days.
She and her 9-year-old daughter moved in with her grandmother in 2017 to save money. Smoot said she stopped attending school part-time at the University of North Carolina Charlotte because she couldn't afford it.
In 2017, she was issued another ticket for driving while her license was revoked and ordered to pay $235. That grew to $285 with a late fee; an order for her arrest was issued for not paying the fines, and she was charged a $5 arrest fee.
She said her car was repossessed, and she lost her job because she didn't have transportation to work.
"I have been forced to make the difficult choice of staying home, losing my job and not being able to take care of necessities for me, my daughter, and my grandmother, whose I also pay, or continuing to drive illegally and risk more punishment," she writes.
A spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, which oversees the state Division of Motor Vehicles, said Wednesday that officials are reviewing the lawsuit.
Follow Martha Waggoner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .
This story has been corrected to show an order was issued for Smoot's arrest instead that she was arrested