Traffic fines wiped for thousands of Cape Fear residents unable to pay

A mass dismissal of traffic penalties means many may legally drive again

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Criminal justice leaders have been working on a big project, remitting traffic fees for thousands of people who couldn’t afford to pay. A judge’s ruling handed down this summer allows more than 7,000 people to move on and get their suspended licenses back now that the fees have been forgiven.

The drivers license restoration project is part of a bigger effort spurred forward by the NC Justice Center and the NC Pro Bono Resource Center to reinstate drivers licenses of North Carolinians one county at a time through mass dismissals. Durham, Pitt and Mecklenburg counties led the charge with mass relief projects, and the Cape Fear’s project was completed late this summer.

If someone fails to pay their mandated traffic fees in time, North Carolina Law mandates the DMV suspend their license indefinitely, even if its their first traffic ticket or their first time they’re unable to pay.

Court costs have skyrocketed in the past several years, and a $260 speeding ticket is out of reach for many people on the poverty line. Statistics from the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission show that 16 percent of people over 16 live in poverty in New Hanover County.

As a result, the median suspension length in New Hanover County is 8.8 years and 7.5 years in Pender County.

People unable to legally drive commonly have trouble getting and holding jobs and taking care of their families.

“Just as everyone’s cleaning out their closets right now for the tenth time during COVID, we’re trying to do that with all this paperwork on the criminal justice system. When you touch a file, you have to remember you’re talking about a human life,” said DA Ben David.

According to the district attorney’s office, 1,749 cases in Pender County and 5,409 cases in New Hanover County fall under the order by Judge Richard Russell Davis. All of the cases involved traffic offenses prior to 2018.

In all, more than 7,000 people with their own struggles and stories, are now eligible to get their drivers licenses back.

The motion to remit does not apply to serious offenses like DUI’s, drag racing, or excessive speeding, it instead involves minor registration and inspection issues and things like seat belt violations.

“This is about making the community safer and making the justice system more fair for everyone—and try and remove from our conversation the barrier that is structural inequality,” said David.

The high rate of license suspensions is a problem that disproportionately impacts people of color. Black people in New Hanover county are 4.8 times more likely than white non-Hispanic drivers to have a suspended drivers license.

“I’ve seen over the past two decades countless people who get in a situation where they owe so much money to the department of motor vehicles that the odds of them ever being able to pay that off to get their license is really pretty slim,” said assistant district attorney Barrett Temple.

Judge J Corpening says one major part of imposing a judgement is ensuring people have the ability to pay whatever fine is handed down in court, but that inquiry isn’t always made.

“[What] we’re finding, in looking at these drivers license cases is that there’s a significant number of people who haven’t paid, and certainly passage of five years or ten years is a pretty good indicator. Their licenses have been revoked for that long. They can’t pay it because if they could, they would’ve and they would have their license instead of tempting fate and getting behind the wheel of a car,” said Chief District Judge J Corpening.

Often times, people still continue to drive, with no license and no insurance. If they’re caught, the criminal charges begin to snowballs. If they’re involved in an accident, they put other drivers at risk of having to shoulder the cost of the crash.

“This community is safer when you make them a licensed driver now eligible to get insurance. When you’re focusing officers’ time in court time, and violence and career criminals rather than them...people being a collection agency for people who are never going to pay anyway...we’re trying to stay true to our offer to do justice, which is more than just punishing the wicked; it’s about uplifting everyone,” said David.

The fees have been wiped from the impacted cases, but there are still steps for people to take to get their licenses reinstated. Experts say people should call the clerks office and check the status of their case to see if they are eligible to get a license now.

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