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Should you lose your license over unpaid traffic tickets? A new lawsuit could decide.

Seti Johnson, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, had to choose between paying traffic fines and supporting his three children.
Seti Johnson, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, had to choose between paying traffic fines and supporting his three children. Contributed by the ACLU

Two North Carolina residents whose driver's licenses were revoked because of unpaid traffic fines have accused the state of criminalizing poverty.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court on Wednesday, Seti Johnson, a 27-year-old father of three, and Sharee Smoot, a 31-year-old mother, describe their plights — dilemmas that the ACLU and other organizations representing the North Carolinians say are too common in a state where nearly 15.4 percent of the residents live in poverty.

By the fall of 2017, according to the lawsuit, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles had revoked more than 436,000 licenses for non-payment of fines and costs.

"For those who can afford to pay, fines and court costs are a mere inconvenience," the lawsuit states. "For those who cannot afford to pay, fines or costs mean the loss of their driver's licenses, which frequently has much more serious economic consequences."

The lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice seeks a court order declaring that North Carolina’s law and DMV’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses are unconstitutional.

It comes at a time when nationwide, many questions are being raised about the criminalizing of debt.

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A recent Washington Post analysis revealed that more than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt.

Lawmakers in some states have responded to the complaints of low-income drivers with proposals to curtail the practices.

In Michigan, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop the state from suspending licenses while a lawsuit made its way through the courts.

In North Carolina, the attorneys representing Johnson and Smoot have asked for DMV to restore all licenses revoked because traffic fines and court costs had not been paid. They also have asked the federal court to prevent DMV from revoking licenses for nonpayment without first providing hearings to determine whether motorists willfully did not pay.

North Carolina law calls for the automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket 40 days after a court judgment but does not require a hearing before that takes place.

The attorneys have called for a different process that notifies drivers of options other than payment so they won't have to deal with the fallout from having their licenses revoked.

"North Carolina’s unjust traffic fine collection scheme has created a two-tiered system of justice where people charged with the same traffic offense are punished differently based on how much money they have," said Cristina Becker, who has been researching the criminalizing of debt for the ACLU of North Carolina.

"Those who can afford to pay their traffic tickets get to keep their license, while those who cannot have their license revoked, making it harder to find and keep a job and take care of their families. North Carolina is denying a basic necessity – having a driver’s license – to hundreds of thousands of residents simply because of their economic standing, trapping countless people in a cycle of poverty. This unfair and unconstitutional system must end."

A Raleigh video about what motorists should expect when stopped says you should answer all questions from an officer. But the state's driver's license handbook points out you are not legally required to answer questions after identifying yourself.

'This has to stop'

Johnson, according to the lawsuit, had to choose between paying traffic fines and supporting his children. After a routine traffic stop last summer in Cabarrus County, he was surprised to learn that his license had been revoked for unpaid traffic tickets. He was forced to use his rent money to pay off the more than $700 he owed to reinstate his license.

His license was reinstated, but not before he received a separate ticket for driving while his license was revoked. Though that charge was reduced, the court ordered Johnson to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs.

Because he could not pay the full amount that day, choosing to settle the fine first, another $20 was added to Johnson's overall bill. But without a job, Johnson has struggled to pay the rest. He fears he will lose his license again.

"No one should have to live with the burden of their license being revoked, and all the expenses that come with that, simply because they don’t have any money," Johnson said in a statement. "I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license. I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop."

Smoot is a single mother who struggles to support her daughter on a low income. She lost her driver’s license in 2016 when she could not afford to pay a traffic fine.

Every day, the lawsuit contends, she faces an impossible choice between driving illegally to work and losing her job.

"I just want a fair chance to take care of my family," Smoot said. "I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license."

Statistics from the federal transportation department in 2016 show that 91 percent of North Carolina residents travel to work by car with only 1 percent using public transit.

A Pew Research study from 2010 highlighted in the lawsuit shows that 86 percent of Americans describe a car as a "necessity of life."

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said revoking licenses for unpaid tickets is "predatory and puts thousands of individuals with low incomes at risk."

"A license permits physical mobility and enables economic transcendence," Brooke said in a statement. "Taking licenses away from those most in need is not just illegal, it is also counterproductive and heartless. We are suing to end this unjust practice.”

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