Revoking Licenses for Failure to Pay: Is Change on the Horizon?

The revocation of driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fines has been a hot topic of late. Much of the focus has centered around the spiral of debt that can result when an indigent person’s license is revoked for this reason. The narrative goes like this:  The person is convicted of a relatively minor violation of the motor vehicle laws. Court costs and a fine are imposed. The person, who is financially unable to do so, fails to pay those amounts. Forty days after the judgment, the clerk of court reports the failure to pay to DMV.  DMV mails a revocation order to the person, which becomes effective 60 days later.  The person could forestall or end the revocation by paying the amounts owed, but she lacks the funds to do that. Yet she must drive in order to keep her job.  So, notwithstanding the revocation, she continues to drive. Soon, she is charged with driving while license revoked and is convicted.  Court costs are imposed again.  And again, she lacks the funds to pay. DMV issues another revocation. When this cycle repeats itself over time, the person may wind up owing hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars in court debt, which, again, she lacks the resources to pay.

Why do we have this law? The statutory requirement that a person’s driver’s license be revoked for his or her failure to satisfy monetary obligations imposed upon conviction of a motor vehicle offense was first enacted in 1985. The sanction accompanied the reclassification of certain minor traffic violations as a new type of non-criminal violation, termed an infraction. Because persons found responsible for infractions could not be placed on probation or ordered to jail, the legislature recognized the need for other measures commensurate with the petty nature of such offenses to ensure that persons found responsible for infractions complied with court-ordered monetary sanctions. Payment of costs and fines was thus tied 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.

Have such license revocations been challenged? North Carolina is not the only state to impose license revocation as a consequence of nonpayment of court-imposed monetary obligations. And lawsuits have been filed challenging these laws in North Carolina and elsewhere. Last summer, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee struck down Tennessee’s statute revoking driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debt on the grounds that it violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the US Constitution. Thomas v. Haslam, 329 F. Supp.3d 475 (2018). The court concluded that Tennessee’s statutory scheme could not survive rational basis scrutiny.  In fact, the court deemed the entire scheme counterproductive to the government’s attempt to collect its debt, reasoning:

If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future.  But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect. For one thing, the lack of a driver’s license substantially limited one’s ability to obtain and maintain employment. Even aside from the effect on employment, however, the inability to drive introduces new obstacles, risks, and costs to a wide variety of life activities as the former driver is forced into a daily ordeal of logistical triage to compensate for his inadequate transportation. In short, losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote.

Id. at 483-84.

The Thomas court also determined that the Tennessee plaintiffs were entitled to an opportunity to assert their indigence before the revocation was issued.  A large number of individuals facing revocation are indigent, the court reasoned. Thus, a pre-deprivation hearing is necessary to avoid erroneous deprivations; moreover, the government has little interest in avoiding the slight delay associated with affording such a hearing.

North Carolina’s statute has a safety valve. G.S. 20-24.1(b) provides that a license revocation imposed for failure to pay monies owed in a motor vehicle case ends when the person demonstrates to the court that his failure to pay was not willful and that he is making a good faith effort to pay or that the fine or penalty should be remitted. My sense is that this provision is not used very often, and I don’t think there are any standard petitions for hearings to make such a demonstration to the court.

In addition, the safety valve appears in the revocation statute, not the reporting statute. Thus, it appears to contemplate a post-revocation determination, though I suppose that a person could seek to demonstrate his indigency to the court after the report is sent to DMV but before the revocation goes into place. The timing is of practical as well as perhaps constitutional significance since a person seeking reinstatement of his or her license following a revocation must pay a $65 restoration fee. G.S. 20-7(i1).

Legislative proposals to change the narrative.  In 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly eliminated the additional license revocation period that was tacked on when a person was convicted of driving while license revoked so long as that person was revoked for something other than impaired driving.  See S.L. 2015-186, as amended by S.L. 2015-264. That legislation ended the endless cycle of revocations that often followed an initial revocation for failure to appear or pay monies oweed in a motor vehicle case.

This session, several bills have been introduced in the N.C. General Assembly that would change the current procedure for revoking a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay court debts in motor vehicle cases in the first place. The proposals suggest three types of changes:  (1) eliminate altogether the revocation for failure to pay (S 643); (2) require that the court determine at sentencing whether the defendant has the ability to pay the financial obligations imposed; only if the court makes a finding of ability to pay and good cause to suspend the license may the license be suspended following failure to pay (H 909, S 494); and (3) permit a person whose license is revoked for failure to pay monies owed to the court to obtain a limited driving privilege (H 853, H 211).

It remains to be seen whether and how North Carolina law on revocation for nonpayment may change. But given that there were more than 80,000 license revocations in North Carolina last year for failure to pay monies owed in motor vehicle cases, plenty of people appear to have a stake in the outcome.

10 thoughts on “Revoking Licenses for Failure to Pay: Is Change on the Horizon?”

  1. In our county it happens even quicker as we do not have judgments nor the 40 days to pay on most traffic tickets. Our traffic court is an administrative session with no judge or magistrate so the ADA amends the ticket to an infraction and then it is placed in called and failed. The defendant had 20 days to pay. If they fail to do so, it gets entered as a FTA and a $200 late fee is imposed instead of the $50 FTC fee.

  2. I have always had the opinion that revocation for failure to pay is counter productive. While understanding that one should be punished for an “infraction” I believe that the courts and DMV should extend payment options (up to 1 yr.) for those who simply cannot pay. Payment options should be in accordance with income status, in conjunction with the extent of the law, but not just entirely the court system. There are other options that could satisfy the judicial requirements and remain punitive in nature, i.e. community service.

    • I understand the reason for the argument but, I can tell you from personal experience working in the system that giving people longer to pay means they only avoid paying it longer. People go years and never pay 1 cent toward court indebtedness, and yes, this includes people that work fulltime and have the means to pay something, even $5; the fact of the matter is, they don’t. It seems to me that we are entering a time in which we seek to decriminalize almost everything that we used to deem deviant/criminal and/or against the rules. If we as a society continue to exempt people from the laws we used to enforce, then society will eventual breakdown. Everyone needs to remember, driving is a privilege, not a right. If one cannot abide by the rules to gain said privilege, then the privilege is revoked with consequences. People drive all day, everyday with no insurance, revoked licenses, expired tags, no inspections, and a myriad of other regulatory deficiencies. Does this make them bad people? Certainly not. It is getting to the point that there is no reason for anyone to pay property tax on, license, inspect, insure, and otherwise safely operate a motor vehicle. Just get in and drive…there is no consequence if you’re caught.

      • I hope and pray to God in heaven you do not work in this system and I also hope you do not have a little wreck and because you are tired they take you to the hospital and take your blood because you “look high to them” and they have no training on what looking high is, is a guess and then you give your blood and you are on anti-depressants or any other medication, not any narcotics and then you get convicted of being under the influence of whatever medication the Dr. has you on because years ago you were innocent until proven guilty, now you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent and when the District Attorney has to get up in open court when he dismisses a bad DWI charge that has absolutely no merit, no probably cause and all of the things I see every day working in this field, he has to stand in open court and tell everyone why he is dismissing the charge or reducing it and then the judge can still override his decision. When police officers are allowed to go into peoples homes and arrest them out of bed because their car is parked somewhere that it is not supposed to be parked we have some real problems. We need to address the inappropriate ways people are getting DWI’s in the first place. I am a strong advocate of sanctions for DWI’s but poor people lose everything when they get one and those that can afford to pay for the alcohol monitor to keep them out of jail or inpatient treatment to keep them out of jail the system is not working at all for the person trying to make ends meet. We know there is no middle class anymore so again the rich make it through this horrible event and the poor end up in prison for trying to get back and forth to work with no license and the attorneys are charging these clients and not even telling them they are eligible for driving privileges.

      • Stan, if people received DWI’s legally then I would totally agree with you but you have no idea what you are talking about as the officers have the power of the pen (ink pen) and can write whatever they want and as a Criminal Justice Major, I refused to go into that line of work due to the nature of how people are treated by law enforcement albeit not all law enforcement as I respect the good ones with everything I have yet they try to do their job correctly and it’s like the prison culture, you either go along with the good old boy system and become tainted or they end up leaving. Require education, training and you will see a different level of officers that will stop some of this crap we see daily in the news. Require them to have training as we do. We have to do 6,000 hours of treatment and 300 hours of training to make 12,00 per hour.

  3. I would like to know if the reinstatement fee of $65.00 only applies to minor traffic infractions or would it also apply for those who have satisfied their DWI court required mandates and want to either get a provisional or their regular driving license.

  4. Of note is the 1985 cost of court, whatever amount that was. I’m not old enough to recall that figure, but I do recall when the cost of court was $32. In 1985 it was likely half that. Now it is around $190, an outrageously high sum for a traffic ticket. It makes much more sense to suspend someone’s license for not paying $20, less than the price of a tank of gasoline, than for not paying $190.

  5. 80,000 revocations last year due to failure to pay fines. I’ve wondered for some time if it would help changing the court fee amount or having a different process for offenses where court appearance can be waived. Roughly $200 for a $10-$100 fine. Apply the court fees for cases actually seen in court, and have a lower administrative/convenience fee for paying and disposing of your citation online or mail.


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