CHARLOTTE — It’s a startling statistic: in North Carolina, more than a quarter of a million people have a suspended driver’s license due to unpaid traffic court fees and fines.
Kaheem Othiossinir is one of them. He’s been without a license since 2005.
“It really sucks because you can’t maneuver how you want to,” Othiossinir said. He also admitted he still drives when he feels he has no other choice.
He told Channel 9 his license was suspended after he failed to pay the fines and fees associated with two traffic tickets. Now, after years of nonpayment and late fees, he owes more than $3,000.
“I’ve got to pay the mortgage, I’ve got to pay the rent, I’m not going to sleep in the car,” Othiossinir stated.
Channel 9 found he is far from alone.
According to the Equal Access to Justice Commission, more than 250,000 drivers across the state have a suspended license. In Mecklenburg County, it typically takes drivers more than 11 years to get their license back.
The Commission also discovered black drivers are four times more likely to have a suspended driver’s license when compared to white drivers. In Cabarrus County, the rate rises to five times more likely, and in Union County, seven times more likely.
“This is serious,” Rev. Corine Mack said, president of the Charlotte Mecklenburg chapter of the NAACP. “Every system in the state of North Carolina harms black people.”
Mack said she recently went to Raleigh to urge state officials to consider changing the driver’s license suspension policy due to its dangerous effects for those already at a disadvantage or in financial distress.
“I think we need to look at other ways to keep people being aided,” Mack said. “If you don’t have a license, you can’t drive to work; you have to take an Uber which costs even more money you don’t have. You have now caused me to be to not only be impoverished but falling into an abyss! We can do a lot of different things to help people get back on the right track, be more human, and have more empathy.”
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said he doesn’t think the state statute that created the practice is broken, but does think there are people who, after getting themselves deep in fees, need help getting out.
“We believe there should be some limits to how long someone show be off the road, as long as they’re willing to accept some responsibility early on,” Merriweather explained. “We want to make sure we’re putting people in a position to succeed, putting people in a position to thrive.”
He, along with a handful of district attorneys across the state, are now taking advantage of another statute that allows them to relieve debt for those who qualify. Merriweather’s office created a system, to figure out when someone’s nonpayment is really a function of not being able to pay. Since being implemented last fall, he says the program has helped more than 10,000 traffic defendants in about 11,000 cases.
“For most people, when they commit a speeding ticket, they know they messed up, they know they did something wrong and they really want to try to fix it,” Merriweather said. “We want to make sure whether you’re rich or your poor that you have the same opportunity to get back out on the road and be safe.”
Othiossinir took advantage of the program in Guilford County and said he’s had 90 percent of his debt forgiven. After paying off the remaining 10 percent, the only thing standing between him and his license is the driving test.
“I recommend it to anybody,” Othiossinir said.
If you’re interested in seeing whether you qualify for mass debt relief, click here.