Thousands of NC licenses revoked because drivers can't afford fines

CHARLOTTE, NC — An advocacy group has sued the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles claiming the state has been running an unconstitutional scheme that keeps people in poverty.

Up until the fall of last year, the DMV has revoked more than 430,000 licenses because drivers can't afford to pay traffic tickets. To put that in perspective, the number is equal to about half the current population of Charlotte.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed the 35-page class action lawsuit saying it's unfair because many of the drivers are in poverty and can't afford to pay fines for minor things like not using a turn signal.

Set Johnson is one of the plaintiff's in the class action lawsuit. He told Channel 9 during an interview on Wednesday that he's being forced to choose between paying a $228 traffic fine and putting food on the table.

"I don't have the money to pay those tickets." Johnson said, "At the end of the day, I would support my family any day versus me paying off tickets."

His attorney Danielle Davis also spoke to Channel 9.

"We're not asking that Seti or any other person not be required to pay their traffic fine. What we're saying is that no person should be punished or treated differently just because they don't have the money to pay their traffic ticket," he said.

Current North Carolina law does not distinguish between people who refuse to pay traffic fines and those who cannot afford to pay.

It's unclear how many of those 430,000 cases cited in the lawsuit where a driver has lost a license for non-payment of fines and court costs are based on affordability. However, the plaintiff says it's unconstitutional for someone in poverty to be punished for an inability to pay.

"The US Supreme Court is clear," Davis said, "That practice is unconstitutional and it's time for a change."

Right now, North Carolina's DMV automatically revokes a driver's license if a ticket is not paid with 40 days of conviction.

The SPLC is asking a federal judge to stop the DMV from taking licenses for minor offenses by July 24. It also wants the state to wipe the slate clean for drivers whose licenses have already been taken away.

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