Fielding a Few Questions About License Revocations for Failure to Appear and Comply

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I wrote last week about the expiration of emergency orders that had temporarily halted clerks from reporting to DMV a person’s failure to appear or to pay monies owed in a Chapter 20 criminal or infraction case.  When DMV receives such a report, it imposes a license revocation pursuant to G.S. 20-24.1, unless the person does one of the following before the revocation goes into effect:

  • disposes of the charge;
  • demonstrates that he or she is not the person charged with the offense;
  • pays the penalty, fine, or costs ordered by the court; or
  • demonstrates to the court that his failure to pay the penalty, fine, or costs was not willful and that he is making a good faith effort to pay or that the penalty, fine, or costs should be remitted.

Someone asked me recently about these sanctions for nonappearance and nonpayment — or incentives for appearance and payment — depending upon one’s perspective. How many revocations are imposed for failures to appear and failures to pay? Do other states have similar license revocation schemes? What other ways exist to incentivize appearance and payment?

Number of revocations. Scholars at the Duke University School of Law recently published an empirical analysis of driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina, finding that in 2018, there were 1,225,000 individuals with active driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina based on a failure to appear (FTA) or a failure to comply (FTC), that is, to pay monies owed in a Chapter 20 case. See William E. Crozier, Brandon L. Garrett, Driven to Failure: An Empirical Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension in North Carolina, 69 Duke L.J. 1585, 1606 (2020). Of those suspensions, 827,000 were for FTAs, 263,000 for FTCs, and 135,000 for both. Based on the total number of adult drivers in North Carolina, they estimated that about 15 percent of all adult drivers were subject to such a suspension.  They found that the suspensions were “heavily disproportionate” against black and Latinx drivers. Id.

What happens in other states? I wrote here about North Carolina’s adoption in 1985 of a scheme that tied appearances in court for infractions and compliance with court-ordered sanctions to a person’s ability to remain licensed to drive. Today, the administrative license revocation provisions enacted in 1985 are codified, as amended, at G.S. 20-24.1 and G.S. 20-24.2. Crozier and Garrett report that North Carolina’s license suspension scheme is similar to that of many other states.  Indeed, they write that, until recently, all fifty states and the District of Columbia permitted driver’s licenses to be suspended or withdrawn for non-driving-related reasons. Id. at 1587-88. Six states and the District of Columbia recently, however, have barred (at least some) driver’s license suspensions for non-driving-related reasons. Id. at 1588.

What other ways exist to incentivize appearance and payment? California is among the six states that no longer suspends driver’s licenses for failure to timely pay monies owed in a traffic case. See Christa Brown et. al, Driving Toward Justice (The Financial Justice Project April 2020). (California still permits the revocation of driver’s licenses for failure to appear.) Researchers found that the year following the end of the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay a traffic ticket, California courts’ on-time collection of fees in criminal cases actually increased by 8.9 percent. Collections declined slightly the following year, but that was attributed primarily to a decrease in the overall number of filings.

The California Judicial Council reported about the following mechanisms that courts implemented to help individuals timely pay:

  • Release driver’s license holds or suspensions for Failure to Pay which increases people’s abilities to get or keep jobs, and therefore be able to pay their debts.
  • Conduct Ability to Pay (ATP) determinations, so that people with lower incomes receive a discount on their traffic fines and are therefore able to pay them more easily
  • Use alternative sentences, such as performing community service to resolve citations and clear debt.

Id. at 6.

In addition, San Francisco court officials described their reliance on more frequent “commonsense” collection methods, including working with a vendor to send reminder notices and monthly billing statements, offering accessible payment plans, and providing more information about ability to pay.

As for incentivizing appearance in court, the California researchers pointed to the findings of a behavioral consulting company and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which tested the impact of a redesigned court summons form and text message reminders on the rate of failures to appear in New York City. They found that the redesign of the form to make the most relevant information stand out reduced failures to appear by 13 percent. They also found that the most effective reminder messaging reduced failures to appear by 26 percent relative to receiving no messages.

My colleague, Jessica Smith, wrote about the New York City study here, and suggested that North Carolina’s criminal summons form might benefit from a similar overhaul. As for reminder messaging, North Carolina launched in 2018 a court date notification service that allows the public to subscribe to criminal court date notifications and reminders by email or text message.

Crozier and Garrett suggest, among other proposals, that structural solutions such as “facilitating transportation to court or online payment of fines, based on ability to pay,” might be successful in ensuring appearance and increasing compliance.

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