Are Driver’s License Revocations on the Agenda?

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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.

11 comments on “Are Driver’s License Revocations on the Agenda?

  1. RDO may be the most dismissed charge on the docket, but DWLR is catching up fast and it seems that compliance afterward is more important than breaking the law now. I have arrested one for DWLR a week after a DWI conviction and a Judge’s order not to operate a MV. The first court date, it was continued 13 mos to give him time to get his license back. Other times, defendants will have multiple suspensions when charged. Then they get a CAA who works all the adjoining counties (and sometimes more) to get all of their outstanding citations (many of which were infractions and not eligible for a CAA) resolved to where they could get their license back, then the charge(s) is / are dismissed and the taxpayers get to pay for the CAA. I have seen a CAA submit 24+ hours for resolving all of the underlying charges and he probably had 15 mins on the DWLR charge itself. It is getting to the point that licenses are optional except for the law abiding, you know, like the ones that leave their guns in the car when the sign says so.

    • JD, the court-appointed attorney in Wake County who does what you described, assuming he or she is not in the Public Defender’s office but is a regular CAA, is paid $141.13 by the State to handle that defendant’s case. That is the same whether the lawyer clears up a hundred old tickets or none. If the CAA is part of the Public Defender’s office, his or her pay is a salary & does not go up or down based on how many old tickets he or she clears up for that defendant. When the judge asks for how many hours the CAA has in the case, the judge is using that as a gauge for how much money to squeeze out of the defendant under the guise of an attorney fee. For 24 hours, the judge is liable to order the defendant to pay the State $1,220 for having a court-appointed lawyer. The actual attorney pay will still be only $141.13 under the contract system which has been in place since 2012. Even under the old system the CAA was not paid a penny for any work done outside of the county in which he received appointed cases. When the lawyer did that out-of-county work, he did it for free. Taxpayers pay for CAA, but only at a $141.13 per defendant for misdemeanor charges. Clearing up the defendant’s driving record saves the taxpayers far more than that by avoiding future DWLR charges for that defendant with all of the taxpayer costs involved in supporting traffic cops, prosecutors, clerks, bailiffs, and jails. $141.13 is a small price to pay for providing the defendant with a lawyer.

  2. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of my practice. But the more you try to “fix” the problem of people digging themselves holes from which they can’t escape, you more you end up dismantling the entire justice system and system of enforcing licensing and traffic laws.

    Given that much of this state and this country has laughably ineffective public transportation, people have no choice but to drive. It’s the lawmakers’ responsibility to write the laws such that they don’t unequally affect the people but such that they are also easy to enforce and deter violators.

    In one regard, the lawmakers have done this to themselves. Because the General Assembly hates lawyers and wants to ensure that as few as cases as possible fall into their laps via court appointment, indigent defendants can now walk into court without any right to consult a court-appointed attorney and plead guilty to DWLR without so much as beginning to scratch the surface of why they are suspended.

    Now that the General Assembly has effectually removed jail time from DWLR punishments (except for impaired driving revocations and habitual DWLR offenders), fines are not going to stop people from driving.

    I don’t know what will change the trend of perpetually suspended drivers. Ending compounding license suspensions for new convictions of DWLR? Allowing people to do community service to work off fines owed or suspensions accrued?

  3. It would be nice for the legislature to entirely revamp the DMV consequences for Driving While Revoked and even No Operator’s License when it occurs during a period of revocation. 1 year revocation is an indefensibly harsh punishment for these cases. It is the same as a first DWI. I think 2 things: 1. the majority of members do not know that this is what the law is, and 2. the majority of members may, just may, agree that those dmv consequences need to be greatly reduced.

  4. One thing that would help is a re-write of N.C. Gen. Stat. 20-20.1, which allows drivers revoked for non-impaired driving offenses to obtain limited driving privileges, which are valid for one year. The plain language indicates the DMV must reinstate the driver’s license “[w]hen the term of the limited driving privilege expires . . . .” However, DMV takes the position that the driver is only entitled to a restoration hearing before a DMV hearing officer, who has the discretion to deny the application for a conditional restoration-even after a one year period of compliance with the limited driving privilege. I don’t think this is what the General Assembly contemplated when passing this law, but DMV is taking this position and it adds one more hoop for (mostly poor) people to jump through. The statute should be amended to make clear that after compliance with the privilege, the person simple has to go to DMV, pay the reinstatement fee, pass the eye-test, and get the license.

    • The statute is already clear on that point. Amending it won’t make it any more clear. The AG’s office needs to tell DMV to follow the law. That’s not likely to happen. Maybe someone will sue DMV over the issue and the Court will order DMV to follow the law. It has happened before.

  5. Part of this problem that goes unmentioned is the fact that the legislature has jacked up the court costs, fines and fees in traffic court to obscene levels in order to fill budget gaps created by their tax cutting.
    First, saying that these crazy traffic “costs and fees” aren’t taxes is simply disingenuous. They are taxes. We’re just calling them fees so we don’t give potential electoral opponents any ammo.
    Second, the level of these costs and fees quickly becomes insurmountable for many working class folks. This leads to them becoming discouraged. I hear folks say all the time, “It’s so high now I’ll never get it paid off, so why should I try? I’ll just save my money to post bonds.” This is nuts. We’ve created a system that encourages people to behave illegally by not giving them any reasonable path to compliance.
    We need to reduce these court costs and fees back to reasonable levels. The $200 FTA fee, for example, is particularly crazy. (Don’t even get me started on the $600 lab fee and $600 witness fee in DWI blood cases.) I like the idea of programs that allow people to do community service, or even dips in jail, if it’ll clear their unpaid fines. I worry that some of our legislators will oppose such ideas because they don’t care about helping working class folks, they just want money to fill the holes they made in their budgets. I’d like to be optimistic that most of the legislators simply don’t know about the mess that their predecessors have made; and once aware of the problem, that they’ll fix it.

  6. By the way, kudos to NPR for focusing broader attention on a big problem that goes unnoticed by most people in our society.

  7. I would like the legislature to at least consider authorizing driving for education as one of the permissible purposes for the LP under 20-20.1. It makes no sense to make a privilege following a DWI more expansive than a LP following DWLR. Judges should also be taught to recognize the power they have to enter an Order ending an FTC suspension when they find a good faith effort to pay the fines under 20-24.1.

  8. My wife was issued a ticket for failure to yield . She sent in the $25 and we moved on We have no received a notice that her license is being revoked for failing to appear and court costs. My question is how is this legal?If she did nothing ,then yes ,but she did what she was suppose to do. We are suppose to have meeting with local DA about this ,but we are mystified about how she could lose her license over this .She plead guilty and mailed in the fine the ticket said she owed!

    • Nelson, in North Carolina, when you “pay a ticket off,” as your wife attempted to do, you have to pay court costs in addition to the fine, even if you don’t actually go to court on it. In this case, the full amount she owed was $213 ($25 fine and $188 court costs).

      Our county’s DA will usually dismiss failure to yield tickets if you or your insurance company takes care of the damages (assuming the failure to yield resulted in an accident). If the case is dismissed, you won’t owe anything, and as long as it’s done before the date in the letter you received from DMV, your wife’s license will not be suspended.

      If they will not dismiss the case, you may end up having to pay the $213 plus the $200 failure to appear fee. In that case, it may be worth hiring an attorney to get it all sorted out.

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