Chapel Hill: Opinion

The DA’s test of Faith – Ted Vaden

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

In this sad time of escalating hostility to Latino immigrants – federal and state authorities are taking new aim at “sanctuary cities” – it is refreshing to note at the local level a bold gesture of hospitality to them.

On March 28, Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall announced a new policy that will allow undocumented residents to feel safer driving in the two counties without fear of ruinous traffic court fines or even deportation.

Under the policy, perhaps unique in North Carolina, motorists cited for driving without a license will usually have the charges dismissed if they can produce a valid identification and agree to take classes on safe driving and on North Carolina law.

“I feel that this policy will help,” Woodall told a crowd of 600 people – nearly half of them immigrants – at a forum at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. “You should feel a little bit more confident whenever you have to drive.”

This is a fairly invisible, but significant issue in our community.

Over the last seven years, some 7.500 drivers have been cited in the two counties for driving without a license. Three quarters were Latino, according to an analysis by Justice United, a local community-organizing group. They pay a fine and fees of $238 per ticket, and many drivers rack up multiple tickets.

Undocumented residents face a Catch-22 on the highways. They cannot get driver’s licenses in North Carolina, under a law passed by the state in 2006. But they need to drive to work, take children to school, shop, get health care and participate in the everyday woof and warp of social enterprise.

Sonia Ramirez, a local Latino parent, described the immigrants’ dilemma. “Mothers have fear of even taking their kids to school and picking them up. They feel frustrated at not being able to attend school activities,” she told the forum. “There are parents who are afraid of even going to work because they may not be able to get home that evening. They have children with fear or anger to see their parents suffering.”

Woodall put together his new policy after months of discussion with Justice United, Latino representatives and local law enforcement officials. He stressed that it applies only in the counties he serves, and that it will not excuse motorists who are charged, in addition to driving without a license, with other infractions such as speeding or running a traffic light.

“What this is about is recognizing that these are otherwise safe and law-abiding citizens,” he said. “We are always willing to work with anybody who is trying to be responsible.”

It may be the only such policy among DAs in the state. Others do exercise their discretion to waive driving without a license charges, but an official of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys was not aware of any other districts that combine the deferral program with the ID. and education conditions.

The policy has the support of local law enforcement. Police Chiefs Chris Blue of Chapel Hill and Walter Horton of Carrboro, and a representative of the Hillsborough police attended the forum.

(The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which issues a large number of citations for driving without a license, did not send a representative but in a statement sent Friday by Jennifer Galassi, legal adviser to the sheriff, said: “The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is fully supportive of decisions made by and policy set forh by the District Attorney. Given that the deferral program becomes relevant post charge, the role of deputies to enforce the law as established by the North Carolina General Statutes remains unchanged. Our Office continues to pursue its Mission of being responsive to the needs of all members of our community as well as to those who visit or travel through our great county, without regard to the individual differences that make us unique.”)

Blue told me Woodall’s policy gives him the opportunity to stress to his officers that they should use their discretion to not cite motorists whose only offense is no driver’s license, especially if they produce a recognized form of ID.

But the ID could be a matter of difficulty. In recognition that Latino residents cannot get driver’s licenses or other official identification forms, Latino community organizations have come up with so-called “Faith IDs,” which are issued to Hispanic people who have proof of country of origin and local residency and participate in education programs.

Not surprisingly, Faith IDs have come under attack in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. A bill introduced by state Sen. Norman Sanderson of Pamlico County would ban “community IDs” on the ground that they can “mislead law enforcement” about a person’s immigration status.

The proposed ban is part of a crackdown at both the state and federal levels to penalize so-called “sanctuary cities” – local governments that don’t cooperate with federal customs officials in detaining undocumented people who are stopped on traffic charges. The same day in March that Woodall announced his deferral policy, President Trump’s new attorney General, Jeff Sessions, unveiled a new effort to withhold federal law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities if their police departments don’t cooperate with deportation efforts.

At the state level, Sanderson’s bill would penalize sanctuary cities by taking away state funding for streets, revenue from beer and wine taxes, telecommunications taxes, sales taxes on video programming, taxes on natural gases and scrap tire disposal taxes. Republican legislative leaders have indicated that the state effort also will ban Faith IDs.

The Faith ID is crucial to the success of Woodall’s new waiver policy. If it is banned, he said, “all this will be for naught.”

Ted Vaden can be reached at