Motorists Claim Losing Licenses Over Unpaid Tickets Violates Civil Rights

GREENSBORO, N.C. (CN) – Two North Carolina motorists claim in court that the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses over unpaid parking tickets is a violation of their civil rights.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Kristi Graunke writes that state law forces citizens who may not be able to pay their parking fines to choose between accepting the taking of their license or breaking the law by continuing to drive because they need to support their families.

“In a state where a driver’s license is indispensable to mobility and economic self-sufficiency, this wealth-based license revocation scheme strips impoverished North Carolinians’ of their capacity to meet their basic needs and those of their families,” Graunke writes.

“As a result, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians cannot legally use a car to secure and maintain employment, take their children to and from school, attend medical appointments, or travel to buy groceries needed for daily life,” he adds.

North Carolina is one of 43 states that suspends licenses for unpaid parking tickets, according to the nonprofit journalism outfit The Marshall Project.

In 2015, NPR reported that the practice of pulling license for unpaid fines started in the 1980s with Congress passing laws that lead to suspensions for unpaid child support. Then licenses were suspended for drug possession. Before long the movement grew at the state level leading to the creation of many of these laws.

A 2005  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found as much as 36 percent of suspended licenses come from issues unrelated to bad driving, an 11% increase compared to numbers from three years earlier.

North Carolina’s state law allowing licenses suspension for unpaid fines was passed in 1985.

“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,” said Seti Johnson, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a resident of Cabarrus County, NC, in a statement released by the ACLU, which is helping represent the plaintiffs.

“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 said.

Johnson had built up about $230 in parking fines but has been unable to pay them off because he’s unemployed. The DMV has since entered an order to revoke his license in July. All of this has unfolded, according to the complaint, without the state asking why he is unable to pay, offering an alternative which could halt the suspension, or giving him an opportunity to be heard before he faces this punishment.

“North Carolina punishes hundreds of thousands of low-income people by revoking their drivers’ licenses simply because of their economic status,” Graunke writes.

The complaint names North Carolina Motor Vehicle Commissioner Torre Jessup as the defendant, The plaintiffs want the court to strike the law revoking driver’s license for unpaid tickets on the grounds the process violates the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.

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