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Crime & Justice

Report: Black Drivers In NC Disproportionately Hit With License Suspensions For Unpaid Fines And Fees

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In 2003, Kaheem Othiosinnir was pulled over for speeding near Greensboro. The fines and fees cost at least $125, according to a lawyer who reviewed Othiosinnir’s court records. Othiosinnir said he wanted to pay them but he was already paying for college, textbooks and rent. Plus, his partner had just gotten pregnant. Soon after Othiosinnir’s first child was born, a second was on the way.

“I was more concerned about taking care of them than worrying about myself,” Othiosinnir said.

He didn’t understand the consequences of not paying the fine.

Typically in North Carolina, if a traffic court fine isn’t paid within 100 days, the state will revoke a person’s driver’s license. While a judge can allow a defendant to pay in installments, it isn’t required. And since many people in traffic court are not entitled to a public defender, they may not know to ask the judge to extend the time they have to pay off their fines and fees.

In 2018, more than a quarter of a million North Carolinians were living with suspended licenses solely because of unpaid traffic court fees and fines, according to a report from the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. A disproportionate number of those people — 47% — were Black.

Fines And Fees Pile On

Othiosinnir’s license was suspended the same year he was pulled over and the fines and fees piled on.

Records show he was charged at least four times for driving with a revoked license. In 2006, the cost was $310. In 2008, $930. In 2014, $458 and in 2017, $258.

Without a driver’s license, Othiosinnir said it was even harder to pay back those fines because he struggled to hold a good-paying job. The surveying job where he had been working didn’t always allow him to drive to the job sites.

“I didn’t have a license so I can’t jump in a company car and just go out there. If anything happens, they’re liable for it,” he said.

By 2020, records show Othiosinnir owed about $2,300 in fines and court costs.

Many drivers find themselves in similar situations. A broken tail light in North Carolina carries a $50 fine but every traffic court case tacks on a $147.50 fee. If a payment is late, that adds $50. Drivers can also be charged another $200 if they miss a court date.

More than 250,000 people in North Carolina in 2018 had suspended licenses only because of unpaid traffic court fees and fines, according to the commission’s report, and 47% of them were Black. The report found Black people had their licenses suspended at four times the rate of white drivers.

Unpaid court fines and fees also plague drivers across the U.S. According to the Free to Drive Campaign, a coalition that works to end debt-based license suspensions, at least 11 million Americans have their licenses suspended for unpaid court debt.

‘Making It Just A Little Bit Easier’

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather wants to reduce the number of suspended licenses. Since 2020, he has dropped the traffic court fees of more than 11,000 people.

“When I look at making it just a little bit easier and taking away a financial constraint from folks, and allowing them to be able to take advantage of a privilege to get back on the road, I see it as a great public safety tool to allow people to thrive,” Merriweather said.

He focuses on drivers who have had their license suspended for at least two years because, according to Merriweather, if they haven’t paid it by that point, they likely can’t afford to. The commission’s report found that the median length of a driver’s license suspension in Mecklenburg County is more than 11 years. Statewide, the median length is just under six years.

Suspending licenses for unpaid fines can have a racially disparate impact, Merriweather said, because race and poverty are “inextricably linked.”

“There are structures within our system that over time have limited generational wealth, access to capital for people of color, and you see that borne out in so many things about our system,” Merriweather said.

Racial Disparities

Some of the highest racial disparities in driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina are in the northwestern part of the state. In Watauga County, Black drivers had suspensions at nearly seven times the rate of white drivers relative to the driving-age population. In Madison County, the suspension rate is nearly 13 times higher for Black drivers, according to commission data.

But Seth Banks, the district attorney for the five-county district that includes Watauga and Madison counties, said those statistics are misleading because the minority population in his district is so small. In Madison County, for example, census data show that only 1.5% of residents, or about 325 people, are Black. According to Banks, that means if just a few more Black drivers have their licenses suspended, the statistics by percentage will balloon.

Instead, Banks said, many of the suspensions in his district are associated with registration and insurance violations. If a driver gets into an accident with someone who doesn’t have insurance, he said it becomes a matter of public safety.

“There needs to be some mechanism for them to pay for your car,” Banks said. “There has to be something there. Or heaven forbid, if you’re injured, there has to be some mechanism for people to be made whole.”

According to Banks, North Carolina continues to revoke licenses to encourage people to follow the law. A suspended license could keep dangerous drivers off the road. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 19% of motor vehicle fatalities involved drivers with invalid licenses.

Fines, fees and license suspensions aren’t perfect, Banks said, but they hold drivers accountable.

“I think that there needs to be, certainly, an honest look to the extent to which court fines and fees and court costs come into play," Banks said. "But there also has to be at some level, an acceptance of responsibilities.”

‘Counterproductive’

Jennifer Lechner thinks one solution to the high rate of suspensions would be abolishing the practice of suspending a driver’s license for unpaid court fees and fines. Lechner is the executive director of The North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, the organization that released the report.

“Right now, if you owe credit card debt, you don’t lose your driver’s license,” Lechner said. “What we’re doing to people is imposing this debt on them and then we’re taking away what may be their one and only means through a driver’s license to go to a job to help pay it off. It’s counterproductive.”

Lechner said the state can hold drivers accountable without suspending their licenses. If they can pay their debts, they should, she said, but there need to be other options if they can’t afford them. She said if someone can’t pay, the state could collect the debt without suspending their license.

Lechner pointed to California as an example. A study from the Fines and Fees Justice Center showed that, in 2018, “the year after California eliminated driver’s license suspensions for Failure to Pay traffic tickets, California courts collected 8.9% more” from active accounts.

‘Here’s My License, We’re Good’

After spending roughly 17 years with a suspended license, relief for Othiosinnir finally came in 2020 after he received free legal help. All but one of his court costs were forgiven and he paid back a final $930 fee in November.

Now, Othiosinnir said he is looking forward to teaching his children to drive.

“I want to be able to go out there on the road and let them drive and ... if we do happen to get pulled over (I can say), ‘Officer, I’m just teaching my son how to drive. Here’s my license, We’re good. OK, y’all, take it easy,’” he said.

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