For about 10 years, Diana Powell lived in fear of getting pulled over as she picked her children up from school or went to a doctor’s appointment.
“Every time I saw a police officer come behind me, I would get nervous, sweating,” she said. “And I would be praying ‘Lord, please don’t let him pull me.’ And sometimes the blue lights would come on, and sometimes he would come on around me.”
Powell’s crime, she said: She couldn’t afford to pay a traffic ticket.
Powell is not alone, according to a report released by Duke University School of Law officials Monday.
About one in seven driving-age individuals in North Carolina currently has a license suspended for not appearing in court or paying court fines and fees, the report by law professor Brandon Garrett and post-doctoral fellow William Crozier found.
Of more than 1.2 million suspended licenses in the state, about 827,000 are for failure to appear in court. About 263,000 are for failure to pay traffic fines and fees.
Many situations involve both.
Typical speeding tickets in North Carolina carry a fine between $10 and $50, but related court fees can push the cost upward of $200.
If the money isn’t paid within 100 days, the state can automatically suspend a driver’s license indefinitely, said Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, which has been working to reduce suspensions.
Meanwhile, others who face more severe crimes, such as driving while impaired, may have their license suspended for a year and can be eligible to drive in certain circumstances.
“That is just one example of how people not having money and not being in a position to pay off these fees and fines are actually being treated worse and having a much more destructive impact on their lives than criminal issues that we as society sort of agree should be punished,” by not being allowed to drive, Bowes said.
Traffic fines, fees and suspensions are part of a larger conversation taking place about whether the criminal justice system penalizes people for being poor.
If people continue to drive after a suspension – which research suggests most do – they can face additional charges of driving while license revoked, resulting in more fines and fees, the Duke report found.
“For a lot of people, once you get into this cycle, you don’t get out,” Bowes said.
One time, Powell was pulled over about a block from her home with her twin boys in the car. She begged the officer not to arrest her for not having a license, but he didn’t listen, she said. She was forced to call someone to come pick her children up as they took her to jail.
“It was terrible,” she said. The situation made her feel irresponsible and embarrassed for being poor.
One time she checked with an attorney, who indicated it would cost about $10,000 to address, she said.
One attorney, who wanted to help Powell continue her work as executive director of Justice Served NC, which seeks to reduce and prevent people’s involvement with the criminal justice system, volunteered and successfully helped Powell get her license back.
Now, she said, she gets at least one call a day from people seeking to their driver’s license back.
Bowes said the Justice Center and others have been working with district attorneys to increase the use of the current options for relief.
In January, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry successfully asked a judge to erase fines and court costs for 559 traffic charges that were more than two years old and didn’t involve a high-risk traffic offense, The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer reported.
Over the next year, Deberry hopes fines for about 15,000 cases will be dismissed as part of a cooperative agreement among city and county agencies.
Other options include changing the law to suspend a license for nonpayment for only a year and adding a step in the court process that would allow a waiver if people can’t afford to pay.
The suspensions are disproportionately imposed on minority residents, the Duke report states.
About 47 percent of those whose driver’s licenses were suspended for not paying fines and costs were black, 11 percent were Hispanic and 37 percent were white.
About 65 percent of driving age individuals in the state are white, 21 percent are black and 8 percent are Hispanic, the report states.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who spent 18 years as a district court judge, said court officials’ intolerance for human realities — a bus breaking down, a sick child, having to work — exacerbate the issue.
Some judges will issue orders for arrests if someone doesn’t make it to court or if they are five minutes late.
Programs that allow defendants to come on different court dates, such as Wake County convenience court, or fill out a form to get a reprieve from arrest after they miss court, also help to address the issue, Morey said.