The Link Between License Revocations and Failures to Appear

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In 1985, the General Assembly reclassified certain minor traffic violations as a new type of non-criminal violation, termed an infraction. S.L. 1985-764. Though the legislation provided that infractions were to be processed in much the same manner as misdemeanor criminal charges (they were to be calendared and prosecuted by the district attorney, proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and persons found responsible for infractions in district court were afforded the right to a de novo jury trial in superior court), their non-criminal nature distinguished them from criminal offenses in a few critical ways. A law enforcement officer could not arrest a person for an infraction. A court could not issue an order for arrest if a person served with a citation for an infraction failed to appear in court. Infractions were punishable by a fine and costs only; no active or probationary sentence could be imposed.

Because persons charged with infractions could not be arrested, and 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 charged with infractions appeared in court and that those found responsible complied with court-ordered sanctions.  See Report of the Courts Commission to the North Carolina General Assembly 15, 16 (1985). Appearances for infractions and compliance with court-ordered sanctions were thus tied to a person’s ability to remain licensed to drive. Failure to appear in court or comply with sanctions triggered an administrative license revocation. As the Courts Commission pointed out, the new “revocation procedure basically treats residents the same for in-state violations as they are treated when they are ticketed outside the state.” Id.; see also G.S. 20-4.20(b) (requiring DMV to suspend a person’s North Carolina driver’s license when the licensing authority of a reciprocating state reports that the person has failed to comply with a citation issued in that state). 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. Here is what they currently provide:

If a person charged with a motor vehicle offense (be it a felony, misdemeanor or infraction) fails to appear on his or her court date and does not appear or “pay off” a citation for a waivable offense within 20 days thereafter, the clerk of court must report this failure to appear to DMV. G.S. 20-24.2. (The failure to appear also triggers imposition of a $200 court cost pursuant to G.S. 7A-304(a)(6).) The clerk must likewise report the failure of a person “charged with a motor vehicle offense” to pay a fine, penalty or costs within 20 days of the date specified in the court’s judgment. G.S. 20-24.2. Though this provision does not so specify, presumably it applies only when the conviction or adjudication of responsibility—in addition to the charge—is for a Chapter 20 motor vehicle offense. (A related provision of G.S. 7A-304(a)(6)—not limited to motor vehicle offenses—imposes court costs of $50 upon a defendant who fails to pay a fine, penalty, or costs within 20 days of the date specified in the court’s judgment.)

When it receives notice from the clerk pursuant to G.S. 20-24.2, DMV must mail or personally deliver to the person an order revoking his or her driver’s license, effective on the sixtieth day after the order is mailed or delivered. G.S. 20-24.1(b). If the person resolves the matter before the effective date of the revocation, the revocation never becomes effective and any entries on the person’s driving record related to the revocation are deleted. To resolve the matter, the person must do one of four things, depending upon the circumstances giving rise to the court’s report to DMV: (1) dispose of the charge in the trial division in which he or she failed to appear when the case was last called for trial or hearing; (2) demonstrate to the court that he or she is not the person charged with the offense; (3) pay the penalty, fine, or costs ordered by the court; or (4) demonstrate that his or her failure to pay the penalty, fine, or costs was not willful and that he or she is making a good faith effort to pay or that the penalty, fine or costs should be remitted.

Once the person has resolved the matter in court, the court so notifies DMV. G.S. 20-24.2. The clerk must provide the person upon request with a copy of the notice sent to DMV.  If the person resolves the matter before the effective date of the revocation, the notice must indicate that the person is eligible to drive if he or she is otherwise validly licensed. If the revocation order becomes effective before the charge is resolved, the person’s license remains revoked until he or she resolves the matter by completing the necessary act of the four listed above and pays a $50 license restoration fee. G.S. 20-24.2.

If a clerk sends an order to DMV “through clerical mistake or other inadvertence,” the clerk’s office that sent the report of noncompliance must withdraw the report and send notice to DMV, which corrects its records. G.S. 20-24.2(b). When this occurs, the person is able to have his or her driver’s license reinstated without paying the restoration fee. In contrast, if the failure to appear is stricken but no notice is sent to DMV withdrawing the G.S. 20-24.2 report, the person must pay the $50 restoration fee to regain his or her driver’s license. A related provision in G.S. 7A-304(a)(6) requires the court to waive the $200 fee for failing to appear if the person demonstrates that he or she failed to appear because of an error or omission of a judicial official, a prosecutor or a law enforcement officer. (Courts also have discretionary authority to waive such costs upon upon a written finding of just cause. See G.S. 7A-304(a).)

I’d be curious to hear from readers who litigate motor vehicle charges as to whether both types of relief (withdrawal of the report and waiver of the $200 fee) typically are granted simultaneously or whether courts frequently determine that relief under one provision, but not the other, is warranted.

10 comments on “The Link Between License Revocations and Failures to Appear

  1. Very informative post today. Thanks.

    • NC revoked my license for fines I owe for a drug charge I came home on Post-Release in 2013 paid off my driving charges now they telling me this is there any privileges I can receive

  2. In our county the Judge’s regularly withdraw the report but don’t waive the fee.

  3. One of my biggest pet peeves as a district court public defender is dealing with DWLR cases where the defendant’s sole basis for revocation is their inability to pay outstanding fines.

    These people are poor. They will never have the kind of cash necassary to pay off the rediculously high fines and “fees” that the legislature keeps enacting. What’s more, these massive costs permenantly prevent them from ever being licensed drivers and contribute to locking them into a cycle of poverty.

    There needs to be a way for old unpaid fines to be forgiven so that poor people with otherwise good driving records can become legal drivers.

    • To remit old fines, you can petition the court under 15A-1363.

      • Thanks!
        That’s perfect. I can’t believe that section has never been brought to my attention before.

      • What is the name of the form required to petition the court to remit those old fines? Or, moreso, how do you do it?

    • That is exactly my situation. I don’t know what to do. I have no license, no car, no home and no job.

      What do we do? I contributed and paid taxes and never took government help!

  4. Yes Pete, I would like to know just how an impoverished person is supposed to meet the ridicules demands placed on them by the Legislatures, and Court Officials. Begging is against Public Policy and they could be charged for that as well. We don’t (on paper) but we do seem to have debtor’s prisons. Without the ‘liberty to travel’ on the public highways using the reasonable modes of transportation available to us ‘unencumbered’ how are we supposed to meet these demands?

  5. URGENT — PLEASE APPRISE US:

    People are buzzing about what’s rumored to happen December 1, 2017: new IOG-based reporting requirements for judges who grant 20-day failure relief(!?). The chilling effect of these requirements seem intended to discourage judges from allowing relief from FTA (failure to appear) / FTC (failure to comply*) penalty fees, but the unintended consequences will likely improperly extend the ultra vires impact of indefinite suspensions imposed under NCGS §20-24.1.

    Are the rumors true? Will there be any further discussion about it? When were/are the opportunities to debate it, and offer perspective from the defense on behalf of the many drivers who will be adversely impacted?

    My concerns are that, if the rumors are true, then (1) it will become even harder to remove FTA and FTC suspensions, especially those undefined suspensions which remain on drivers’ records, but should not — even after compliance and even after the penalties are paid; (2) the new reporting requirements may be one-sided and may not take into account the good that comes from allowing 20-day failure relief, i.e., the public money that will be saved and the positive economic activity that will follow as a direct consequence of allowing safe drivers to regain their licenses; and (3) it does nothing to correct the many statutory vagaries and ambiguities which have led to so much interpretation confusion, which result in unconscionably long license suspensions under NCGS §20-28.1 for failing to timely handle petty traffic offenses, and the unequal treatment of 20-day failure relief, county by county.

    For example, Alamance County has a wonderful FTA Court program which enables people to pay a small fee (usually around $25) before their substantive offenses are dealt with. Once the $25 “FTA fine” is paid, the related FTA suspension is appropriately deleted from the driver’s record. This successful approach, which I have been promoting to any county that will listen, appears to be based on the recognition that:

    (1) drivers have the right to request cost modifications under NCGS §15A-1363, and
    (2) there is no requirement for written “just cause” findings of fact / conclusions of law where the FTA fee is REDUCED. Under NCGS §7A-304(a), that burdensome and chilling requirement only applies when costs are WAIVED entirely.

    There may be a need to correct how this “FTA fine” is classified when the cashier codes each payment, but that’s an easy fix. There are other counties with similar approaches to FTA relief, but too many — some close to home (ahem) — take a draconian obstructionist view. Another related problem: some counties stick drivers with a $20 “installment fee” if the fine and court costs are not paid on the day of disposition, which appears to be a gross misinterpretation of NCGS §7A-304(f) — clearly intended only “to cover additional costs to the court of receiving and disbursing installment paymentS.” Plural emphasis added.

    Sorry for the length of this, but it’s important to millions of drivers, including our military veterans. Please advise: — is there any way to visit this, or suspend the December 1 effective date, or modify the reporting requirements?

    Thanks in advance.

    *NOTE: Stinnie v. Holcomb (W.D. Va) will be heard December 11-12, 2017. https://www.clearinghouse.net/detail.php?id=15426

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