Are Driver’s License Revocations on the Agenda?

The 2015 North Carolina General Assembly convened earlier today, with new members sliding into place just as the first ice storm of the winter left the area. And while most folks’ attention will (as usual) be focused on the state budget, I’ll be watching over the next few months for legislation related to motor vehicle crimes. I’m particularly curious to see whether the General Assembly shows any interest in interrupting the cycle of driver’s license revocation, an issue that lately has attracted national attention.

A spiral of bad consequences. NPR recently reported on how states’ practices of revoking driver’s licenses when a driver fails to pay a fine levied for a traffic offense “mostly affect[] the poor and creat[e] a spiral of bad consequences.”

While that conclusion may be unremarkable to those who regularly appear in our state’s district courts and to those who’ve had their licenses revoked for this reason, the NPR story is notable for its national perspective. It recounts, for example, the efforts of a retired municipal court judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to remedy the problem. Judge Jim Gramling helped establish the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability in his state. Volunteer lawyers at the center work to help clients become re-licensed. This sounds a lot like the Driver’s License Restoration Project, the brain-child of Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman and a joint venture of the law schools at UNC and NCCU, which trained law students and recruited volunteer attorneys to assist clients in ending license revocations.

But Judge Gramling doesn’t plan to simply work within the existing system. He wants to change it. Thus, he told NPR that he plans to lobby the Wisconsin legislature to repeal the law imposing a two-year period of license revocation for failure to pay a traffic ticket.

A burden on limited resources. The NPR story also cited the conclusions of a 2013 report from a working group of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.  After reviewing an analysis of data collected from drivers license agencies in eight geographically and demographically diverse states, the group recommended that driver’s license revocation be eliminated as a penalty for violations that do not relate to highway safety, such as the failure to pay child support and the theft of motor fuel. The report noted nearly 40 percent of revocations result from actions unrelated to highway safety, and that drivers suspended for traffic safety related reasons are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers suspended for what it termed “social non-conformance reasons.” The authors recommended that limited resources be focused on dangerous drivers, and stated that the elimination of suspensions unrelated to highway safety would “significantly reduce the burden on departments of motor vehicles (DMV’s), law enforcement, the courts and society.”

Are FTC revocations related to highway safety? Significantly, the failure to pay a fine for a motor vehicle offense was categorized among the data the AAMV studied as a violation that was related to highway safety. Thus, without further analysis of the relative risks of such drivers, the report cannot be cited as fully supportive of the elimination of revocations for failure to pay motor vehicle fines. Nevertheless, one can easily conceive of an argument that drivers revoked for failure to pay a fine are revoked for reasons that relate more to social non-conformance, and perhaps poverty, than highway safety.

The ugly truth.  People whose licenses are revoked drive anyway.  The AAMV report estimated that three-fourths of revoked drivers continue to drive, and cited that statistic as indication that “driver license suspension is no longer the solution to force compliance.”

The revocation loop.  North Carolina’s revocation for failure to pay a motor vehicle fine, unlike Wisconsin’s, lasts only until the person pays the fine. But a seemingly endless revocation loop can begin for a defendant who drives during that period of revocation.  A person convicted of driving while license revoked during a period of revocation has his or her license revoked for an additional year for the first offense, two years for the second offense, and permanently for the third or subsequent offense.  G.S. 20-20.1 created a limited driving privilege designed to extract a driver from the revocation loop, but—perhaps because of the lengthy compliance period required— the provision hasn’t provided large-scale relief.

Will this year be different? Legislation proposed in past years to repeal the additional period of revocation for these types of driving while license revoked offenses has stalled in committee.  See S 585 (2013 Session); H 615 (2013 Session). Stay tuned to see if similar proposals arise and gain any more traction this session.