SPLC sues North Carolina DMV for revoking licenses of people who cannot pay traffic tickets

During a traffic stop last summer in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, Seti Johnson was surprised to learn that his driver's license had been revoked for unpaid traffic tickets.

Forced to use his rent money to pay off the more than $700 he owed to reinstate his license, he moved in with his mother. The father of three also had to choose between paying traffic fines and court costs, and supporting his family.

“No one should have to live with the burden of their license being revoked, and all the expenses that come with that, simply because they don’t have any money,” Johnson said. “I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license. I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.”

Johnson is far from alone. The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has revoked the licenses of hundreds of thousands of people simply because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and court costs, according to a lawsuit the SPLC filed today with three other organizations.

The lawsuit seeks to end the practice, which funnels low-income people further into poverty, in violation of their due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The North Carolinians harmed by this punitive scheme are stripped of their ability to support themselves and their families, as driver’s licenses are crucial to securing and maintaining employment, driving children to school, and obtaining basic needs.

The federal lawsuit challenges the DMV's revocation of driver's licenses without first providing sufficient notice of alternatives to full payment under state law, and a hearing to assess ability to pay to ensure that the licenses of people who cannot pay traffic fines and court costs are not revoked.

“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 SPLC. “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.”

More than 15 percent of North Carolina residents live in poverty. North Carolina’s practice of revoking licenses for nonpayment without ensuring ability to pay disproportionately harms people of color due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

Johnson, who is black, had his license reinstated, but not until after he received a separate traffic ticket for driving with a revoked license. The charge was later reduced, and the court ordered him to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs. He was able to pay $100 on the day of sentencing, but couldn’t pay in full, and as a result, was assessed an additional $20 fee. Johnson was previously unemployed, and just recently found a new job, but has many outstanding bills he must pay once he starts getting a paycheck. Without consistent employment over the years and given his current obligations, he cannot pay the remaining amount, which was due on May 22, and Johnson fears that he will lose his license again.

“If my driver’s license is revoked, I will not be able to drive to work, get food for my family, take my children to school and daycare, or take my family to doctor’s appointments,” he said.

The DMV’s unlawful license revocation stems from a North Carolina statute that requires the automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket within 40 days after a court judgment. But the law does not require a hearing before revocation to ensure that a person punished under the statute is actually able to pay and willfully failed to do so. U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes it clear, however, that inability to pay must be considered before punishing a person for nonpayment of a court fine.

Sharee Smoot, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, is a single black mother struggling to support her daughter on a low income. She lost her driver’s license in 2016 when she could not afford to pay a traffic fine and court costs. Every day, she faces an impossible choice between driving illegally to work, and losing her job.

“I just want a fair chance to take care of my family,” Smoot said. “I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license.”

When the DMV receives notice from the court that a person has not paid a traffic fine or cost, it enters a license revocation order that becomes effective within 60 days. The order, which is sent to motorists, does not explain how a motorist can obtain a hearing on the pending revocation, nor does it explain that if a person cannot pay in full, there are other options to avoid revocation under state law. The order indicates that the only way to reinstate a license once it has been revoked is to pay traffic fines and court costs in full.

The plaintiffs seek a court order declaring that North Carolina’s law and the DMV’s practice of revoking drivers’ licenses are unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also seek an injunction to prevent the DMV from revoking licenses for nonpayment without first providing motorists sufficient notice and a hearing to determine whether they willfully did not pay. The suit also requests an injunction that would require the DMV to restore any licenses that were revoked solely for nonpayment.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice also joined the SPLC in filing the lawsuit.