A few years’ back, a group of civil rights groups sued the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles over its longstanding practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t afford the cost of traffic tickets. As a practical matter, the plaintiffs argued, such a practice is the equivalent of a kind of debtors’ prison that inflicts severe and debilitating societal punishment on people simply because they are poor.
As the groups noted back in 2018:
More than 15 percent of North Carolina residents live in poverty. And drivers’ licenses are crucial to people’s ability to secure and maintain employment, drive children to school, and obtain other basic needs. Yet, North Carolina routinely subjects impoverished people to indefinite revocation of their driver’s licenses for no reason other than nonpayment of fines and costs imposed for traffic offenses without ensuring ability to pay. This practice disproportionately harms people of color due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.
Today, it appears that the parties may be closing in on a settlement in the suit that could bring relief to thousands of low-income North Carolinians.
This is from release distributed by the ACLU of North Carolina just after noon today:
A federal court in Winston-Salem held a hearing today to weigh final approval of a proposed class-action settlement that would provide an opportunity for tens of thousands of North Carolinians to have their driver’s licenses restored if they were revoked as a result of a person’s inability to pay fines, penalties, and court costs. The settlement was proposed by civil rights organizations and the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in the federal class-action lawsuit Johnson v. Jessup.
If the settlement is approved, the DMV will provide a special notice to tens of thousands of drivers with a revoked license that informs them how they can seek reinstatement of their licenses if their licenses were revoked due to inability to pay. The DMV will also revise future notices to include information on how a driver can petition and demonstrate to the court their inability to pay a traffic-related fine or cost prior to a failure to pay revocation. Under the settlement, the DMV has also agreed to fund an informational website that will host informational videos, written explanations, and other materials on preventing or removing a license suspension for non-payment from a person’s record, as well as pro bono legal resources that may be available for people seeking to avoid license revocation or remove a revocation from their record.
Today’s hearing comes nearly four years after three North Carolinians filed suit challenging North Carolina’s law and the DMV’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses as unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) represent plaintiffs in the case.
In the statement, the plaintiffs expressed thanks to the court for considering the proposed settlement and expressed the hope that the state could be on the verge of a tremendously important, overdue and potentially transformative shift in policy.
Caring and thinking people will be keeping their fingers crossed.