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Lawsuit: The poor must not lose licenses over traffic fines

RALEIGH, N. C. – Because he can’t pay $228 in traffic fines, Seti Johnson faces revocation of his North Carolina driver’s license, which means that he is not able to drive to the job he hopes to get it soon. For Sharee Smoot, the height to keep her out of the way, is $648.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys for the two say North Carolina is the practice of the revocation of the drivers licenses of people who can’t pay their traffic fines and court costs is unconstitutional, because it violates the rights to a fair trial and equal protection under the 14th amendment.

“This repeal regulation disproportionately punishes impoverished residents in violation of federal law, to take away crucial means of self-sufficiency and further push them into poverty,” the request for a preliminary injunction states.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Torre Jessup, commissioner of the state Division of motor Vehicles, is named as the defendant.

North Carolina law requires the automatic cancellation of licenses for failure to pay a speeding ticket of 40 days following a ruling of the court. The groups are suing because the law does not require a hearing to make sure that the driver can pay the fine and court costs.

The statements made by Smoot and Johnson describe a cycle of fines and trying to catch up on their debts as they try to hold on to their jobs and their families.

Last year, Johnson said he paid more than $700 in fines, court costs and fines on previous cards. His driving licence was reinstated, but he fell behind on rent payments and had to move in with his mother.

But before he paid the $700, he was issued another ticket for not paying. He was convicted in April of a lesser crime — the lack of knowledge of the Department of motor Vehicles of an address change and ordered to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs. He paid $100 on that day, but was charged an extra $20 for a loan account and the set-up costs, although the bill says that the entire amount is due within 40 days.

He said that he doubts he will be able to pay the remaining debt within 60 days of May 22, as he should do to his license.

“I value taking care of my responsibilities,” he writes . “But that is hard to do if I am required to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and court fees, and my licence is revoked, when I don’t have the money to pay. … No one should have to live with the burden of their license revoked because they can’t pay their traffic tickets.”

Smoot writes that they are making $9 an hour while working in a group home, when it was ordered to pay $308 for driving while her license was revoked in 2016. She was assessed a $50 late fee for not paying within 40 days.

She and her 9-year-old daughter moved in with her grandmother in 2017 to save money. Smoot said that they do not have to go to school part-time at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, because they could not afford.

In 2017, she was issued a ticket for driving while her license was revoked and ordered to pay $235. That grew to $285 with a late fee; then she was arrested for not paying the fines and a fee of $ 5 arrest fee.

She said that her car was repossessed, and she lost her job, because she had no transportation to work.

“I was forced to make the difficult choice of staying home, losing my job and not be able to take care of the necessities for me, my daughter, my grandmother, who I also pay, or continues to drive illegal and the risk of more punishment,” she writes.

A spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, which oversees the state Division of motor Vehicles, said Wednesday that officials are reviewing the lawsuit.

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Follow Martha Waggoner on Twitter http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .

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