Some NC Residents Might Get Back Their Suspended Driver’s License

After four years, a settlement in a class-action lawsuit is poised to allow more than 185,000 North Carolinians to legally drive again.

Chief Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina heard details of a proposed settlement agreement in February 2022. He signed off on the agreement the following month.

Tens of thousands of drivers will receive a special notice about how they can request a court hearing to potentially remove the suspension on their driver’s license. Those who lost their license solely because of their inability to pay fines or fees could have their license reinstated.

Licenses Shouldn’t Be Suspended for Inability to Pay Fines

A group of civil rights organizations sued the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV) on behalf of Seti Johnson and Sharee Smoot. Johnson had lost his job, leaving him without the funds to pay his traffic ticket. When his license was revoked and suspended for nonpayment, he was left unable to drive to find and maintain a job or take his kids to school. In a similar situation, Smoot was forced to drive in violation or risk losing her job.

The lawsuit expanded to include everyone who since mid-2015 lost their license and is still unable to lawfully drive because they failed to pay their traffic fines.

The lawsuit argued that the practice of suspending the driver’s license of people who can’t afford to pay a traffic ticket fine punished residents because of their financial status. With the gaps in wealth, the NCDMV policy disproportionately penalized people of color.

The groups who filed the class-action lawsuit are as follows:

  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • ACLU of North Carolina
  • Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
  • Southern Coalition for Social Justice

According to the lawsuit, the practice of suspending licenses in these cases is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of due process and equal protection under the law.

Helping More North Carolinians Keep Their Driver’s License

North Carolina law gives motorists 40 days to pay traffic fines and fees or face losing their license indefinitely. The lawsuit sought to have the law declared unconstitutional and to require a hearing be conducted before a license could be revoked.

The court did not declare the law unconstitutional. The agreement does, however, put in safeguards to help more North Carolinians keep their driver’s licenses.

The agreement requires the NCDMV to do the following:

  • The NCDVM will send a special notice to 185,000 drivers who had their licenses suspended due to their failure to pay traffic fines and fees. The notice will explain how the driver can request a hearing to determine if they are eligible for an adjustment in their fines and reinstatement of their license. These notices will be sent over the next 60 days.
  • At that hearing, if the court agrees the driver didn’t pay the fine because they couldn’t afford it and not that they were neglectful, then at that point the person will be able to apply to get their license reinstated.
  • In the future, the NCDMV must send a special notice to drivers about they can petition and show to the court an inability to pay a traffic-related fine before receiving a revocation notice. Before this agreement, the revocation notice stated that full payment of the fines, penalties, and court costs was the only way to avoid the indefinite driver’s license suspension.
  • An informational website must be created and administered by the North Carolina Justice Center that will include videos, written explanations, and other materials on preventing loss of license because of nonpayment.
  • The new website must be referenced in the special notices sent out for the next 18 months. The information is also included on the NCDMV’s main website and its offices throughout the state.

“We expect this settlement will help mitigate the harms of the unnecessarily harsh and punitive practice of revoking people’s drivers’ licenses because they are not wealthy, a practice which has disproportionately affected people and communities of color,” said ACLU of North Carolina attorney Michele Delgado in a news release.

A 2021 study by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University showed that Black residents make up 21% of the state’s driving population, yet accounted for 47% of the suspensions in 2013-17 for failure to pay.

In a separate statement, the NCDMV said, “The new notices will inform drivers that North Carolina General Statute 20-24.1 permits them to prevent the revocation of their license by filing with the sentencing court a motion for relief from fines and fees.”

Legal Counsel to Protect Your Driving Privileges

At Jetton & Meredith, our attorneys understand the impact that a traffic or speeding ticket can have on your life. In addition to increased insurance costs, you can have your license suspended or revoked.

Examples of traffic violations we can fight include the following:

If you are in the Charlotte area and need help to keep or get back your driver’s license, contact us today to schedule a consultation. Call (704) 931-5535 or reach us online.