Using court data in combination with Geographic Information Systems tools, the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center (NCPBRC) has created “When Debt Takes the Wheel,” a story map project that reveals extreme racial disparities in North Carolina driver’s license suspensions by county and details the devastating impact of the state’s policy of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.
The nonprofit operated by the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission has also created a new website, ncfairchance.org, through which drivers can get pro bono help with driver’s license restoration.
The statewide suspension rate of Black or African American drivers is four times higher than that of white, non-Hispanic drivers. This racial disparity is higher in some counties, both urban and rural. For example, in Wake County, the suspension rate for Black or African American drivers is seven times higher than that of white, non-Hispanic drivers. In Rowan and Cabarrus counties, it’s more than five times higher. In Watauga County, it’s almost seven times higher. These findings are based on all available data.
In collaboration with several district attorneys, as well as the North Carolina Justice Center, the NCPBRC has been working to restore the driver’s licenses of North Carolinians one county at a time through mass debt remittance by the court. District attorneys in Durham, Pitt, and Mecklenburg counties have implemented mass relief projects, with new projects now in progress under the leadership of district attorneys in Buncombe, Guilford, Pender, New Hanover, Robeson, Caswell, and Rockingham counties. People whose licenses were suspended for more serious traffic offenses, such as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), are ineligible.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer B. Merriweather III said prosecutors should strive to “put as many people as possible in a position to work and live in peace,” as he was taught by his predecessor and mentor, former District Attorney Peter Gilchrist.
“For many of us, that means getting — and keeping — a driver’s license,” said Merriweather. “The Mecklenburg County DA’s Office has been thrilled to do our part to put thousands of Mecklenburg citizens in a position to have their driver’s licenses restored. We know the extended mobility that comes with a driver’s license enables our residents, no matter their financial status, to make important contributions to a safe and vibrant community. We look forward to this effort expanding across the state, so even more North Carolinians will be positioned to thrive, to work, and to live in peace.”
People in three counties can now see whether they qualify for mass debt remittance by visiting ncfairchance.org, with 10 more counties to be added this fall. In addition, any North Carolina driver with a suspended license can visit the site and sign-up to get an advice letter from a pro bono attorney based on a review of their driving record.
“The people we are helping have come to court and taken responsibility for their traffic offense but simply haven’t had the means to pay off their court costs and fines,” said Pitt County District Attorney Faris Dixon. “The ability of citizens to support themselves and their families, and of local businesses to recover economically, is directly related to the average person being able to drive to work. For many citizens, a driver’s license can make the difference not only between employment and unemployment, but also between groceries and hunger, or between receiving health care and going untreated. That’s why I wanted to bring the Driver’s License Restoration Project to Pitt County — to help our citizens and our businesses in a practical, effective way.”
The story map shows, in part through the experience of a driver whose license has been suspended for 19 years, the dire consequences suspensions can have for drivers and their families.
“Having a revoked or suspended license perpetuates poverty by trapping economically vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of structural oppression,” said Leigh Wicclair, restorative justice program director at the NCPBRC. “Once ticketed, many low-income people cannot afford to pay traffic fees or take time off work to appear in court, resulting in the loss of driving privileges. This loss propagates employment insecurity, and people who continue to drive with a suspended license risk being charged with criminal offenses, which will lead to more fines and fees they cannot pay.”
Wicclair added that the problem particularly impacts North Carolinians who are already economically vulnerable and those who live in rural areas without reliable public transportation.
While district attorneys can motion the court to offer debt remittance as a local solution, legislators have the unique ability to create a statewide solution by abolishing the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.
“We will do all we can to work with district attorneys and pro bono attorneys throughout the state on driver’s license restoration, but as wonderful as that is for the thousands of North Carolinians who will get their licenses back, it doesn’t provide a statewide solution, and the process will have to be repeated ad infinitum,” said Jennifer Lechner, executive director of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. “The power to create a comprehensive and permanent solution is in the hands of our legislators. We hope this story map project helps them see how counterproductive it is to suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.”