Seti Johnson and Sharee Smoot v. Jessup
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. The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end the practice, which disproportionately harms African-American drivers.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two plaintiffs—one whose license was indefinitely revoked in 2016 and 2018 for non-payment of fines and court costs and another whose license revocation will become indefinitely effective in July 2018 for non-payment—describes how the practice 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.
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.
Plaintiff Seti Johnson had his license revoked for unpaid traffic tickets in the summer of 2017. 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, who is black, also had to choose between paying traffic fines and court costs, and supporting his family.
Plaintiff Sharee Smoot 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, figuring out an alternative way to travel approximately 45 miles, or losing her job.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice joined the SPLC in filing the lawsuit.
On March 31, 2019, the lawsuit was certified as a class action.
The SPLC has appealed the denial of a preliminary injunction to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.